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18th Aug 2018

Magazine

Bioplastics industry risks disappointing consumers

  • When people hear the phrase bioplastics, they tend to think that it is completely plant-based. (Photo: Kate Ter Haar)

In December 2016, new research was presented at the 11th European Bioplastics Conference in Berlin. Around 1,700 German citizens were asked whether they had heard of the term 'bioplastics' before: 43 percent had and the rest hadn't. However, of the ones who did know the term, 84 percent of them didn't really have a clue what it meant.

"In the many years that I've spent writing about the niche in the plastics industry known as bioplastics, I've never ceased to be amazed [by] the profound ignorance that abounds about bioplastics," said Karen Laird, editor at Plastic News Europe.

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  • The tomatoes are organic - or 'bio' in German - but that does not mean that the packaging material is bioplastic. (Photo: European Commission)

The term bioplastics certainly doesn't help. 'Bio' conjures up feelings of 'natural' or 'environmentally friendly' whereas the rising tide of plastic waste has become a "planetary crisis". Research by Julia-Maria Blesin at the Hochschule Hannover has shown that when people hear the phrase bioplastics they tend to jump to certain conclusions: that it's completely plant-based, for instance, or that the raw materials are organically cultivated.

She believes that most consumers have "unrealistically high expectations in the sustainability of bioplastics".

For some companies, this ignorance is bliss because they can get away with greenwash.

Oxobiodegradable plastics are a case in point. Though sold on the basis that they will help to "protect the environment" because they biodegrade, the European Commission thinks otherwise: "[They] have been found to offer no proven environmental advantage over conventional plastics, while their rapid fragmentation into microplastics cause concerns."

Work is now underway to restrict their use in the EU. But the problems don't end there.

Sometimes more harmful than plastic

Designers and brands are just as confused as their customers.

An investigation in the UK recently by FoodserviceFootprint.com found that the country's largest pub chains have been left bamboozled after switching from plastic to compostable straws. In some cases, the straws made from polylactic acid (PLA) – a plastic substitute derived from plants that will biodegrade within three months in a controlled composting environment – were ending up in landfills where they are actually more harmful than plastic.

Even the association representing the bioplastics sector admits that explaining its wares is tricky: "It's hard to communicate all pros and cons of the very different bioplastics in an appropriate way," suggests Hasso von Pogrell, managing director of European Bioplastics.

A clear definition would certainly help.

To date, the term bioplastics is loosely used to refer to plastics that are biobased, biodegradable, or both. Biobased means they are made at least in part from renewable materials derived from plants (like corn or cellulose) instead of fossil resources, according to the European Bioplastics website.

Some can also be biodegradable in industrial composting facilities (there is a European standard, EN13432, for products that meet certain criteria for compostability), and can therefore be collected alongside food waste, for example.

But as von Pogrell explained at an event in Brussels organised by the European Policy Centre in February: "Biobased plastics are not necessarily biodegradable and compostable plastics are not necessarily biobased."

Some bioplastics can therefore be recycled with their plastic cousins (though they can lose some physical properties after several 'cycles'), but some can't and therefore end up contaminating collections.

How do you decipher which is which? With great difficulty.

EU rules on compostable plastics

Brussels decided to step in. Proposed amendments to the packaging and packaging waste directive as well as the new plastics strategy published by the European Commission in January recognised the role bioplastics could play in helping "decrease our dependency on fossil fuels." Plastics' share of global oil consumption is expected to rise from six percent in 2014 to 20 percent by 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

However, the commission said, "in the absence of clear labelling or marking for consumers, and without adequate waste collection and treatment, it could aggravate plastics leakage and create problems for mechanical recycling".

To avoid "false environmental claims" and reduce confusion, the commission will publish harmonised rules for labelling "compostable" or "biodegradable" plastics. A life cycle assessment will also be developed to ensure biobased plastics result in "genuine environmental benefits compared to the non-renewable alternatives".

The commission can't afford to hang about, either. As well its own anti-plastic legislative push, there's a pull from consumers looking for alternatives – the likes of Coca-Cola, Danone and Puma are all showing heightened interest in bioplastics - and Europe is where the action will be. Europe's share of global bioplastics production is forecast to jump from 18 percent to 25 percent between now and 2022; packaging will also remain the strongest segment.

This could create jobs, reduce carbon emissions, make use of waste and revive rural areas, according to the bioplastics industry.

But we shouldn't get too carried away. "If anyone thinks bioplastics will save the planet they are delusional," says one industry leader. Indeed, the most pressing issue is to reduce excessive and unnecessary use of plastics.

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