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Issue 03/2015

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  • Bioplastics
  • Biobased
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  • Plastics
  • Carbon
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  • Renewable

Basics Frequently asked

Basics Frequently asked questions By Michael Thielen Even if bioplastics MAGAZINE has tried to give answers to all kind of questions from the field of biobased and biodegradable plastics for almost ten years now, there are always the same questions asked by people who just learned about these new kinds of materials. European Bioplastics has put together a comprehensive set of such FAQ which is accessible via their website or as a pdf document for download. Here bioplastics MAGAZINE presents a small and edited excerpt of these FAQ: What are bioplastics: bioplastics are biobased, biodegradable or both. The term biobased describes the part of a material or product that stems from biomass. When making a biobased claim, the unit (biobased carbon content or biobased mass content) expressed as a percentage and the method of measurement should be clearly stated. Biodegradability is an inherent property in certain materials that can benefit specific applications, e.g. biowaste bags. Biodegradation is a chemical process in which materials, with the help of microorganisms, degrade back into water, carbondioxide and biomass. When materials biodegrade under conditions and within a timeframe as defined by the EN 13432 standard, they can be labelled as industrially compostable What are the advantages of bioplastic products? Biobased plastics help reduce the dependency on limited fossil resources, which are expected to become significantly more expensive in the coming decades. Slowly depleted fossil resources are being gradually substituted with renewable resources (currently predominantly annual crops, such as corn and sugar beet, or perennial cultures, such as cassava and sugar cane). Biobased plastics also possess the unique potential to reduce GHG emissions or even be carbon neutral. Plants absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide as they grow. Using this biomass to create biobased plastic products constitutes a temporary removal of greenhouse gases (CO 2 ) from the atmosphere. This carbon fixation can be extended for a period of time if the material is recycled. Another major benefit offered by biobased plastics is that they can close the cycle and increase resource efficiency. This potential can be exploited most effectively by establishing use cascades, in which renewable resources are firstly used to produce materials and products prior to being used for energy recovery. This means either: 1. using renewable resources for bioplastic products, mechanically recycling these products several times and recovering their renewable energy at the end of their product life or 2. using renewable resources for bioplastic products, organically recycling them (composting) at the end of a product’s life cycle (if certified accordingly) and creating valuable biomass/humus during the process. This resulting new product facilitates plant growth thus closing the cycle. Furthermore, plastics that are biobased and compostable can help to divert biowaste from landfill and increase waste management efficiency across Europe. All in all, bioplastics can raise resource efficiency to its (current) best potential. Are bioplastics edible? Bioplastics are used in packaging, catering products, automotive parts, electronic consumer goods and have many more applications where conventional plastics are used. Neither conventional plastic nor bioplastic should be ingested. Bioplastics used in food and beverage packaging are approved for food contact, but are not suitable for human consumption. Can fossil-based plastics be completely substituted by biobased bioplastics? According to the PRO BIP study conducted by the University of Utrecht, bioplastics could technically substitute about 85 % of conventional plastics, though this is not a realistic short- or mid-term development. With a share of 1.6 million tonnes (2013) compared to 300 million tonnes total plastic production per year, bioplastics are still only beginning to penetrate the market. However, with increasing availability and a quickly expanding number of products in diverse market segments, bioplastics will become a significant part of the plastics market in the long run. How are costs for bioplastics developing? The cost of research and development still makes up for a share of investment in bioplastics and has an impact on material and product prices. However, prices have continuously been decreasing over the last decade. With rising demand, increasing volumes of bioplastics on the market and rising oil-prices, the costs for bioplastics will be comparable with those for conventional plastic prices. How much agricultural area is used for bioplastics? In 2013, the global production capacities for bioplastics amounted to around 1.6 million tonnes. This translates into approximately 600,000 hectares of land. The surface area required to grow sufficient feedstock for today’s bioplastic production is therefore about 0.01 % of the global agricultural area of 5 billion hectares. Assuming continued high and maybe even politically supported growth in the bioplastics market, at the current stage of technological development a market of around 6.7 million tonnes accounting for about 1.3 million hectares 44 bioplastics MAGAZINE [03/15] Vol. 10

Basics could be achieved by the year 2018, which equates to approximately 0.02 % of the global agricultural area. There are also many opportunities including using an increased share of food residues, non-food crops or cellulosic biomass that could lead to even less land use demand for bioplastics than the amount given above. Is the current use of food crops ethically justifiable? According to the FAO, about one third of global food production is either wasted or lost every year. European Bioplastics acknowledges that this is a serious problem and strongly supports the food industry’s efforts to reduce food waste as a key element in fighting world hunger. The main deficiencies that need to be addressed are: - logistical aspects such as poor distribution/storage of food/feed, - political instability, and - lack of financial resources. When it comes to using biomass there is no competition between food/ feed and bioplastics. About 0.01 percent of the global agricultural area is used to grow feedstock for bioplastics, compared to 97 percent used for food, feed and pastures. Food crops such as corn or sugar cane are currently the most productive and resilient feedstock available. Other solutions (non-food crops or waste from food crops) will be available in the medium and long term with second and third generation feedstock under development. There is no well-founded argument against a responsible and monitored (i. e. sustainable) use of food crops for bioplastics. Independent third party certification schemes can help to take social, environmental and economic criteria into account and to ensure that bioplastics are a purely beneficial innovation. Are GMO crops used for bioplastics? The use of GM crops is not a technical requirement for the manufacturing of any bioplastic commercially available today. If GM crops are used, the reasons lie in the economic or regional feedstock supply situation. If GM crops are used in bioplastic production, the multiplestage processing and high heat used to create the polymer removes all traces of genetic material. This means that the final bioplastic product contains no genetic traces. The resulting bioplastic is therefore well suited to use in food packaging as it contains no genetically modified material and cannot interact with the contents. What is the difference between oxo-fragmentable and biodegradable plastics? The underlying technology of oxo-degradability or oxo-fragmentation is based on special additives, which are purported to accelerate the fragmentation of the film products if incorporated into standard resins. The resulting fragments remain in the environment. Biodegradability is an inherent characteristic of a material or product. In contrast to oxo-fragmentation, biodegradation results from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae. The process produces water, carbon and biomass as end products. Oxo-fragmentable materials cannot biodegrade as defined in industry accepted standard specifications such as ASTM D6400, ASTM D6868, ASTM, D7081 or EN 13432. What are enzyme-mediated plastics? Enzyme-mediated plastics are not bioplastics. They are not biobased and they are not reported to be biodegradable or compostable in accordance with any standard. Enzyme-mediated plastics are conventional, non-biodegradable plastics (e.g. PE) enriched with small amounts of an organic additive. The degradation process is supposed to be initiated by microorganisms, which consume the additives. It is claimed that this process expands to the PE, thus making the material degradable. The plastic is said to visually disappear and to be completely converted into carbon dioxide and water after some time. Is biodegradation a solution for the littering problem? A product should be designed with an efficient recovery solution. In the case of biodegradable plastic items, the preferable recovery solution is collection with biowaste, organic recycling (e.g. composting) and the creation of compost (a type of humus which is beneficial for soil fertility). Designing a product for littering of any kind would mean encouraging the misuse of disposal, which is unfortunately widespread. Consequently, biodegradability does not constitute a permit to litter. However, the issue of pollution, especially marine pollution, is taken very seriously by the bioplastics industry; research is actively being conducted to provide further factual information in the immediate future. Generally, when advertising products as biodegradable, a clear message should be communicated to consumers, who often misunderstand this property. A clear recommendation on product recovery is therefore important. Are biobased plastics more sustainable than conventional plastics? Biobased plastics have clear advantages over conventional plastics. They provide the same and in some cases better performance while also being based on renewable resources. Thus, the plastics industry will be able to move away from finite fossil resources in the future and take its place in the bioeconomy. Saving fossil resources and reducing GHG emissions are two inherent advantages that biobased plastics offer in contrast to conventional plastics. With use cascades biobased plastics can also contribute towards closing the loop of a product thus helping to increase resource efficiency immensely. Bioplastics are either more sustainable than conventional plastics or have the potential to be so. According to a study by the German Environment Agency “bioplastics are at least as good as conventional plastics”. The study also mentions that “considerable potential is as yet untapped” . Info: The complete set of European Bioplastics’ FAQ can be found at their website: A pdf-version of the FAQ can be downloaded from bioplastics MAGAZINE [03/15] Vol. 10 45

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