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Issue 05/2019

  • Text
  • Textiles
  • Fibers
  • Polymers
  • Compostable
  • Barrier
  • Biodegradable
  • Products
  • Plastics
  • Biobased
  • Packaging
  • Materials
  • Bioplastics
Highlights: Fibres/Textiles/Nonwovens Barrier Materials Cover Story: Lightweighting PBAT

Opinion Bioplastics in

Opinion Bioplastics in the Circular Economy R.O.J. Jongboom, Director Business Development, Biotec Founded in 1992, BIOTEC (Emmerich, Germany) is one of the oldest and most experienced companies worldwide in the area of compostable and biodegradable plastics. Looking back at nearly 30 years of history in this field, it is remarkable how some trends and focus points seem to change, whereas - even after almost 3 decades - others remain stubbornly the same. In the early nineties of the previous century, the number of companies using starch as a feedstock for alternative plastic materials was very limited. In those days, biodegradable starch plastics were considered an exotic novelty providing an elegant way to help farmers to find new outlets for their surplus production of crops such as potatoes and corn - and make a contribution to a cleaner world for future generations. Organic waste collection and composting were still in their infancy and landfill was a commonly accepted waste disposal method. Worries about climate change or plastic soup were far away in the distant future. Global plastic consumption was roughly 30 % of current volumes and plastics recycling was something that - at best - occurred inside the factory with production scraps. The image and reputation of plastics have shifted over the last few decades: from materials representing hope, growth, progress and wealth, they have become a scourge, increasingly associated with pollution, climate change and irreparable environmental damage. Many governments and multinationals are focusing in their long term sustainability policies on the Circular Economy. Much of the inspiration is coming from the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Unfortunately, the translation of this well-elaborated vision on a Circular Economy into legislation and policies has in many cases simply been distilled into a focus on plastics recycling, while ignoring the added value of compostable and biodegradable plastics in specific applications. Is focusing purely on plastic recycling a responsible strategy or policy? At first sight, it seems a charming concept: keep plastics materials in circulation, preferably for eternity, and minimize dependency on crude oil as feedstock. In the perception of the public at large, recycling is a positive approach, supported by decades of positive experiences with the recycling of glass, metal and paper. For these materials, recycling, however, is well established. Once recycled, these materials have a positive value and there is a market or outlet for them. The situation for most plastics, however, is much more complicated, as anyone that ever played with clay in different colors as a child knows: once the bright colors are mixed, you cannot separate them back again. Likewise, mixed plastics are extremely difficult to separate, and as many products available in the market consist of different materials, colorants, printing inks, labels and numerous contaminations, recycling becomes a challenge. Separating, cleaning, upgrading, and recycling is currently only possible for mono-stream products for which a proper collection system is in place, such as e.g. (most) PET bottles. Some polyolefins, like PE or PP, can, up to a certain point, be used to produce various products. It is currently an illusion to think that plastics will be able to be mechanically recycled on the same scale as glass, paper and metals anytime in the near future. Suggesting this as a policy would be thoroughly misleading and a serious oversimplification. Yet, what does the general public hear? “Plastics are bad, and recycling is good” is the highly oversimplified and incorrect message which is being communicated over and over again in the news. As a result, people see no need for other steps, even though these would actually be much better in the long run. Recycling is not something that is exclusively done by humans. Nature has developed biological processes over millions of years, keeping creation and degradation in balance and harmony. As a result, nature is able to “recycle” enormous amounts of organic material. Look, for example, at what happens in autumn, when the leaves fall from the trees. Nature is able to effectively break the mass of different leaves, other plant materials and dead insects back down into simple building blocks. The CO 2 that green plants bind during growth via photosynthesis, is released back into the atmosphere without contributing to the formation of greenhouse gasses. Nature is actually much better at organic recycling than mankind, as nature can handle complex mixtures of organic materials, whereas technical/mechanical recycling processes can only work effectively when there is a very low degree of contamination. Washing, cleaning, and separating is fine for glass, metal and paper, but is very difficult for plastics. There is a need for recycling processes that can handle heterogenic feedstock. Both chemical recycling and organic recycling are able to do so. Chemical recycling is still in its infancy, but compostable products and industrial composting are well established, with demonstrated products and technologies. 40 bioplastics MAGAZINE [05/19] Vol. 14

Opinion There are many applications in which plastics run a high risk of being contaminated with food waste or other undesirable materials that make regular recycling of these plastics virtually impossible. Typical examples are coffee capsules, food trays, yoghurt or mayonnaise cups and alike. Cleaning these plastic products is costly and negatively influences the technical and economic feasibility of plastic recycling. And vise versa as well: consumers can have a tendency to (wrongfully) assume that such products can be disposed of via organic waste collection and that removing plastics after composting or biogas production is a simple step. Either way, contamination is undesirable and leads both to additional costs and a lower quality of output (of both recycled plastic and compost). Compost should not be contaminated with plastics, and plastics should not be contaminated with food. And in cases where the risk of cross contamination is high, alternatives that can be processed via organic recycling, i.e., composting or biogas production, should be sought. Biotec strongly supports the objectives of the Circular Economy. With numerous different Bioplast grades, different high quality applications can be achieved for blown films, sheet material, thermoformed or injection molded trays, fibers, and laminated products. To achieve the objectives of the Circular Economy, the general public must become more aware, which would force multinationals and governments to pursue higher ambition levels and to fully embrace the suggestions of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, rather than simply cherry picking the initiatives relating to plastics recycling only. Compostable plastics can strongly support the objectives of the Circular Economy, ensuring that less (food) contaminated materials end up in the plastics recycling stream and that more AND cleaner organic waste is collected. This organic waste can be effectively converted into compost for improving the carbon binding capacity of the soil, or into biogas for decentral energy generation (gas or electricity). It would really help a lot if companies that are involved in post-consumer waste processing were not paid per ton of waste processed, but instead per ton of high quality recycled plastic or clean compost that is applied in the market. The currently existing profit incentives for post-consumer waste processors act as a legal stimulation for them to optimize their profits. This does not take into account the price that future generations will be paying for cleaning up the garbage we are dumping in the soil and the oceans. All industrial composting facilities are perfectly able to convert certified compostable products into water, CO 2 and humus. What they need to do is to stop focusing on the high speed processing of large volumes of contaminated organic waste that has no agricultural value, and instead to aim more at producing high quality compost with significant agricultural benefits. The currently existing financial incentives for these companies do not justify investments in delivering quality but are optimized for converting the highest possible volumes in the shortest possible time, thus creating the highest value for their shareholders and leaving the bill that the future generations will need to take care of unpaid. bioplastics MAGAZINE [05/19] Vol. 14 41

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