Bioplastics – a potential solution requiring further debate
In contrast to traditional plastics that are based on fossil resources, bioplastics are materials that are fully or partially made of renewable resources such as maize, sugar, straw, wood, algae or biowaste. If a product is labelled “bio-based”, it is partly or entirely derived from plants. If it is also biodegradable, microorganisms can convert the materials back into natural substances, such as water or carbon dioxide. Interestingly, not all bio-based materials are biodegradable while some fossil-based chemicals and polymers are. It all depends on their chemical structure. Numerous different bio-based materials exist. To name but a few: polyethylene-terephthalate (BioPET), polyethylene furanoate (PEF) or polylactic acid (PLA). It is complicated, no doubt.
The idea is promising, but what about the reality?
The idea as such – to replace fossil with renewable resources in as many sectors as possible – is promising and future-oriented. A transition to a bio-based economy holds the potential to avoid unsustainable fossil resources, may save greenhouse gas emissions, contribute to meeting climate goals, reduce waste and help create new jobs as well as drive European innovation. In an article in the German magazine “Enorm” that was also published by Spiegel Online, Katrin Zeug sceptically examines the usefulness of bioplastics and their perceived advantages. Her main points of criticism are the lack of transparency and honesty in the debate as well as the strong business interests in the discourse. According to Zeug, large companies support bioplastics for profit reasons: carrier bags made of bioplastic sound more sustainable than their traditional plastic counterparts; hence consumers might be encouraged to consume more instead of less and be more careless with their waste. Further, while these carrier bags are labelled compostable, they biodegrade only under certain conditions and not per se. Different materials take different temperatures and length of times to totally decompost. Some can go into home composting, most need commercial composting. Operators have to be able to distinguish between conventional, bio-based and biodegradable plastics. Currently, according to Zeug, most bioplastics in Germany end up in waste incineration and not where producers intended them to end up.
A different picture in Italy
The situation in Italy is different. Since 2012, Italy’s non-reusable shopping bags have to be certified biodegradable and compostable (EN13432) by law. The political support for bioplastics has led to a strong growth of the market. One year after the introduction, the quality and purity of compost in composting sites has improved. The production of biopolymers for carrier bags jumped from 8 % in 2010 to 28 % in 2011, new plants and projects with high investment from private companies emerged and the utilization of single-use non-biodegradable and compostable carrier bags declined by 50 %. According to an OECD publication on Policies for Bioplastics (2013), the majority of the Italian people supports the law and views it as milestone in environmental sustainability. Besides the political support, significant investments in innovative research helped to create the necessary value chains, plastic processing facilities and suitable waste recycling systems.
A coherent approach
One major challenge is the existence of numerous different materials combined with little knowledge about each disposal situation. This complicates targeted waste management and reduces efficacy. Primarily, harmonized frameworks, clear labelling requirements and sufficient as well as easy accessible information are necessary. There is no need to shift the focus to materials that are biodegradable, if the existing structures are specialized to recycle materials. Most bioplastics that are not biodegradable can easily be included into existing recycling infrastructures. It is more about a coherent and transparent approach, investments in the separation of materials or the creation of suitable facilities and waste systems.
Apparent potential for improvement
Most studies come to the conclusion that bio-based materials show better results than traditional plastics with regard to fossil resource consumption and climate change effects. However, their environmental impact is worse with regard to acidification, as well as aquatic and terrestrial eutrophication. Overall, at the moment, no ecological advantage or disadvantage can be derived. With regard to the future development of bioplastics, experts see apparent potential for improvement and optimization. Although there are hurdles, fossil resources are finite and sustainably produced renewable resources are not. Without doubt, there is a need for a transparent debate and continuous improvement, but a complete turn away from bio-based materials might not be the preferable option.
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