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Sustainable Plastic? The Bioplastic (Com)Promise

By Kristy-Barbara Lange

In the face of the colossal amounts of plastic waste that are currently clogging oceans, choking wildlife, and having ominous – if still unknown – effects on human health, bioplastics have risen as something of a potential solution. But are bioplastics an innovation with potential to revolutionise plastic, making it truly sustainable, or do they run the risk of perpetuating the plastic crisis? We asked European Bioplastics about how this invention fits into the fight against plastic waste.

Green European Journal: Plastics are high on the political agenda at the moment, with the European Commission releasing its strategy on plastics earlier this year and its proposal for a new directive on single-use plastics. What are the dimensions of the plastic crisis today?

Kristy-Barbara Lange: Plastics are highly versatile materials that are used in many different sectors of modern life. The performance and suitability of the materials in many sectors and for many products — from suitcases to medical applications or outdoor jackets — are not being discussed. Short-lived products that are not correctly disposed of and end up in the environment are the focus of the discussion, principally packaging items such as sweet wrappers and bottle caps.

The efforts of the Commission and also the discussion taking place with stakeholders are stamped with generalising slogans such as #banplastics. But actually we are talking about certain products and how to better design them, use them, and dispose of them. A major part of the littering reality today is created by insufficient implementation of existing waste management legislation, by a lack of waste management infrastructure, and by inappropriate disposal behaviour. The plastics strategy as well as the recently approved changes to waste legislation take this into account and focus on strengthening better waste management on land, the primary source of marine litter.

What is European Bioplastics and how does it fit into the broader plastics picture? Is there a global alliance of bioplastics organisations?

European Bioplastics (EUBP) is an industry association and represents the interests of more than 70 companies involved in the production, conversion, and use of bioplastics vis-à-vis the European institutions. We were founded as a German association in 1993, but with a growing number of members, we changed our focus of activity to Europe in 2005.

EUBP operates at EU level, but there are also several national associations across Europe.[1] As the oldest association in the bioplastics field, EUBP also has a network on the global level with associations ranging from the Australasian Bioplastics Association, to the Japan Bioplastics Association, or ANIPAC in Mexico.

Europe is mobilising around the plastics issue, yet the EU is arguably part of the problem. Europe generates 25 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, with less than 30 per cent of that recycled. Why and how is Europe both part of the solution and problem with plastics?

The existence and effectiveness of waste management infrastructure and consumption habits as well as the level of implemented waste legislation varies greatly across Europe. More harmonisation with a focus on the higher ranks of the European waste hierarchy would give the EU the opportunity to set a positive example for other regions in the world to follow.

Moreover, current discussions about plastics go beyond waste management and focus on dependency on fossil resources, resource efficiency and availability, climate protection, and fighting litter. The notion of the circular economy addresses many of these aspects, and by combining the principals of the bioeconomy with the infrastructure of a circular economy, [2] Europe can make sure that resources are never wasted but enter the economy as valuable secondary feedstock, helping to decouple economic growth from the depletion of our planet’s natural resources.

Bioplastics are not necessarily all biodegradable, which can be very confusing for customers. What are bioplastics, and how are they different from petroleum-based plastics in terms of their origins and life cycle?

Bioplastics – as we at EUBP define it – are derived, either fully or at least in part, from alternative, bio-based feedstock, with the trend clearly pointing towards fully bio-based materials. Performance-wise, bioplastics materials are at least as good as conventional established materials. The second property described by the term ‘bio’ in bioplastics is biodegradability, which is one end-of-life option amongst others. This property does not depend on the feedstock used but on the chemical structure of the plastic material, which means that also certain fossil-based materials can be biodegradable.

The property of a plastic material to biodegrade is valuable in a limited number of specific products and contexts, such as in food packaging, because it offers a new route for recycling. Recycling can be mechanical or organic (composting or anaerobic digestion), and both need to be supported if we want to achieve a circular economy as much as is feasible. When packaging is mixed with perished food or biowaste, [3] mechanical recycling is not an option for the plastic material. The use of compostable plastic packaging makes mixed waste suitable for organic recycling and enables the shift from recovery, meaning incineration, to organic recycling. It also increases the volume of separately collected biowaste and hence the volumes of valuable compost. Bio-waste makes up the largest fraction of municipal waste (50 per cent) and needs to be collected separately so that it can become a valuable secondary resource. Certification of biodegradable plastics for industrial compostability can help here.

However, even in the most advanced circular economy, there will always be a limited need for virgin feedstock for the production of certain plastic products, for example in the medical field or for packaging with food contact, which could probably not be made out of recyclates as these always contain a certain amount of contaminants and might not be able to fulfil the strict requirements. Using biomass to produce plastics is not only a benefit when it comes to cutting emissions, but also to be more independent from resource imports and, additionally, gives European farmers new ways to generate income with non-food by-products. So in making sure demand for virgin plastic is met through bio-based options in the future and aiming for the ultimate recyclate – a bio-based recyclate – bio-based plastics will step out from their niche at some point.

One of the criticisms of bioplastics is that they do not in any way challenge consumption habits and tackle the throw-away lifestyle. How do we deal with bioplastics at end of life?

There are lots of plastic products out there that are durable, reusable, and provide high performance, and these can equally be made out of bio-based plastics. Bioplastics are a wide range of plastics — some are used for durable products, some are mechanically recyclable, and others are organically recyclable. Depending on the product and material, the consumer should dispose of it accordingly at the end of its life – and so a clear disposal recommendation should be given on the product or related to its purchase.

Bioplastics can help to make the system — its resources, waste management — in parts better, but they are no magic trick. The short-lived convenience focus of our times needs to be tackled by awareness raising and measures challenging consumption altogether. We look to legislators to provide assessments and a framework for how to tackle this challenge.

So it’s necessary to also move towards a reduction in the amount of plastic we produce and use, regardless of where it comes from and how it is treated at the end of life?

Prevention and reduction are paramount to reduce plastic waste and leakage into the environment. At the same time, investments into sound waste management infrastructure across Europe as well as comprehensive projects to increase the consumers’ knowledge of correct disposal are necessary for the transition to a circular economy.

Bioplastics are presented as a green alternative to petroleum-based plastics, but they are nevertheless synthetic polymers, the production of which has an environmental cost and CO2 impact. How do bioplastics fight climate change?

Using sustainably sourced feedstock that regrows on an annual basis and takes up carbon during its growth phase from the atmosphere is a major advantage compared to conventional fossil-based plastics. Carbon is ‘stored’ within the material and the product, which functions as a carbon sink. If the resources take up a certain amount of carbon and the production process of the material is efficiently designed, the carbon footprint of the material can be neutral or even negative, although the exact data for the proportion of bioplastics managing to achieve this at the moment is not available. If a product is then made out of the material, additional emissions accrue but the carbon footprint will still be decisively lower than for fossil processes. Making use of this emissions reduction and carbon storage potential is a major reason to use bio-based feedstock.

Bioplastics have come under fire for competing for sources of food and fuel, for having a toxicity potential equal to that of some petroleum-based plastics, and for presenting a potential threat to soil degradation. How does the bioplastic industry respond to such criticisms and how can these risks be counteracted?

This debate is highly sensitive and emotionally charged because of earlier similar debates around biofuels. Resource use for bio-based plastics has therefore been closely scrutinised, and certification schemes to ensure sustainable growth and good agricultural practice have been developed and are being successfully applied, for example the International Sustainability and Carbon Certificate (ISCC plus) scheme and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB). Next to environmental concerns, social aspects such as respect for land rights and working conditions are also covered in these schemes.

The actual land used to grow crops to produce biotechnological products is very small and will not increase significantly in the next five years. In 2017, the global production capacities of bioplastics amounted to 2.05 million tonnes. Approximately 0.82 million hectares of land were needed to grow the feedstock for these capacities, less than 0.02 per cent of the 5 billion hectare global agricultural area. Metaphorically speaking, this ratio correlates to the size of an average cherry tomato next to the Eiffel Tower. Assuming continued strong growth of the bioplastics market based on the current trajectory, a market of 2.44 million tonnes could be achieved by the year 2022, accounting for about 1.03 million hectares, which is about the size of the region of Flanders in Belgium.

Future competition about land with food and feed production is highly unlikely, as food, feed, and biotechnological products such as bio-based plastics are produced in an integrated way in biorefineries, where different products are gained from one plant. Also the diversity of input material for bio-based plastics production is important. Even though agricultural crops are the most efficient ones at the moment in terms of land use, yields, and bug-resilience, non-food crops such as forest resources or bio-waste can and partially already are valuable feedstocks for the production of bioplastic materials.

With regards to toxicity there are several EU control mechanisms to ensure that plastics are in line with environmental regulation and human health requirements. Approval under the EU chemical legislation REACH also applies to bio-based plastics. Food contact approval is relevant for all bioplastics made for wrapping or transporting food and drink. As they break down and transform in the environment, biodegradable plastics are especially scrutinised and have to fulfil additional ecotoxicity tests, such as those set out in the industrial composting standard EN 13432.

The EU Commission’s strategy on plastics declared it will continue investigative work into the life-cycle impacts of alternative feedstocks for plastics such as biomass, indicating potential support for the development of bioplastics in the future. How does European Bioplastics view both the Commission’s strategy and directive on single-use plastics?

We support the Commission’s Plastics Strategy, even though it could have been a bit stronger on identifying the useful compostable plastic products that it mentions. We count on this to be a deliverable of the near future. We also count on the Commission to create a level-playing-field with regard to its life-cycle assessments for different feedstocks and to challenge old and aggregated assessments based on virgin-fossil plastic.

With regard to the initiative on single-use plastics, we agree with the Commission’s statement in the corresponding roadmap that sound, land-based waste management is the key to avoid marine litter, but we do not see this strongly represented in the directive. For example, there is no assessment or prognosis of how the recently adopted waste legislative measures, such as furthering recycling, will impact today’s littering reality. Such an assessment would be necessary to develop further efficient actions that tie in with waste legislation. We agree that waste legislation is not the only point in the value chain where action is needed, but the proposal is vague on key points such as making ‘available more sustainable alternatives’. It also does not fully consider the reality of European consumption habits as it proposes a full ban of single-use catering products.

 

[1] These include Club Bioplastiques (France), Asso Bioplastiche (Italy), Holland Bioplastics (Netherlands), Asobiocom (Spain), Belgian Bio Packaging (Belgium), Nordisk Bioplastförening (Nordic countries), or the Biobased and Biodegradable Industries Association (UK).

[2] The bioeconomy encompasses the sustainable production of renewable resources and their conversion into food, feed, fibres, materials (e.g. plastics), chemicals, and bioenergy through efficient and innovative technologies.

[3] Biowaste includes biodegradable garden, food, and kitchen waste from households or restaurants, caterers, and retailers.

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Sustainable Plastic? The Bioplastic (Com)Promise

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