Bamboo plastic plates

We’ve all heard reports about how billions and billions of pieces of plastic are choking the world’s oceans. If you’re worried, you’re not alone; surveys show that oceanic plastic pollution is a top consumer concern. In recent years, there has been a rise in the use of bamboo and other plant-based additives in plastics. Can these products help protect oceans and marine life?

It may seem like bamboo and other plant-based additives in plastics are a good idea. However, research shows that they can be unsafe in materials that come into contact with food. Using unapproved ingredients in tableware for sale in the European Union is illegal. So now, the European Commission and the EU Food Fraud Network are joining forces to stop the illicit import, trade, and advertising of these products.

Why are bamboo and other unapproved plant-based plastic additives banned in Europe?

Most plant-based additives, including bamboo, have not been adequately assessed for safety in tableware. The concern is that these additives can cause accelerated degradation of certain plastics. As a result, substances used in the manufacture of plastic can migrate into food. Bamboo plastic products have reportedly released large amounts of melamine and formaldehyde in some tests, exceeding what is considered safe levels.

Melamine can be toxic to the kidneys, and formaldehyde is carcinogenic. Leaching is more likely when the product comes into contact with heat or slightly acidic liquids including soda.

Although the European Commission has approved more than 900 substances as monomers, additives, and polymer production aids in food contact materials, plastics are being sold that contain bamboo and other unapproved plant-based additives. Most of these products come from China, and producers, distributors, and importers must remove these products from the European market immediately. To date, the U.S. has implemented no regulation of bamboo plastics, but research does expose potential safety risks when such composite plastics are used in items intended for food contact.

Bamboo-based plastic coffee mugs
Leaching of harmful chemicals is more likely when the bamboo-fiber plastic comes into contact with heat.

Are producers misleading consumers with greenwashing?

Greenwashing involves making unsubstantiated claims that a product is more environmentally friendly than it is. For example, there are cases where the labels on plastic tableware containing bamboo additives indicate it is “biodegradable,” “eco-friendly,” and “organic,” or misrepresent it as “100% bamboo.” These claims can trick environmentally motivated consumers into making uninformed purchases. Just because a plastic product contains bamboo fillers doesn’t mean it is biodegradable or organic.

Although some bamboo products are inherently more sustainable, not all products containing bamboo are green. While bamboo is fast-growing and durable, manufacturers sometimes process it with harmful chemicals or solvents. These products can leach into food or off-gas into the air, creating health concerns for factory workers and consumers.

What can shoppers do to protect themselves?

Avoid plastic with bamboo and other unapproved plant-based additives that may come into contact with food or beverages until they are certified as safe for food or beverage use. Beware of greenwashing when products that make claims such as “eco-friendly” or “plant-based” yet aren’t verified as safe by a reliable third-party certification. For example, if you want to purchase bamboo products from sustainably-managed forests, look for Forest Stewardship Council-certified bamboo.

To reduce plastic pollution in oceans, avoid consuming single-use plastics whenever possible. When you do dispose of plastics, recycle them whenever possible. Also, participate in beach cleanup efforts, support legislation that reduces plastic production and waste, and avoid products that contain plastic microbeads.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.