Bioplastics and alternative materials: Evaluating the role of bioplastics in the circular economy
Circularity Concepts: Exploring key drivers of the plastic circular economy
Presented by Hunt Briggs from RRS, the second module in our Circularity Concepts series examines the role of bioplastics. Considered by many to be a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics are frequently produced from renewable feedstocks and are generally perceived to biodegrade upon disposal.
In reality, bioplastics are more complex, as they may or may not be produced from renewable feedstocks, and while some bioplastics are biodegradable, others are not. Additionally, there are a number of factors that influence how sustainable a solution it really is.
There are key drivers that must work in harmony to realise the benefits of bioplastics:
Feedstocks and production methods should prioritize minimization of resource consumption and impacts including emissions, deforestation, land use efficiency, etc.
Bioplastic products will have different profiles in terms of biodegradability, across different environmental conditions, and claims of biodegradability should be defined within the context of the environment in which it has been verified to biodegrade and supported by a recognized certification authority.
Biodegradable bioplastics should be paired with access to compatible end-of-life management systems such as composting.
Consumers must receive active and clear guidance for handling biodegradable products post-use to ensure they will reach intended management systems.
While rapidly growing, the global bioplastics market is still small compared to the global plastics industry, with 2.4 million metric tonnes of bioplastics produced in 2021, compared to approximately 367 million metric tonnes of petro-based plastics. It’s estimated that bioplastics production will grow to 7.6 million tonnes annually in the next five years, with Asia as a production hub, representing almost 50% of production capacity globally.
Senior Consultant, Resource Recycling Systems
Types of Bioplastics
What is the difference between bio-based or biodegradable plastics? And how sustainable are they? In this module, we break down the different types of bioplastics, reviewing them from the perspectives of feedstocks, production methods, and applications to examine their environmental value proposition.
The environmental impacts of bioplastics production are significant, exceeding fossil-based plastics by some measures. Levels of impact depend on biopolymer type, specific production processes, and perhaps most importantly, feedstock. Biodegradable biopolymers behave differently in distinctive environments, and a material’s use case and end-of-life fate must be in alignment with a waste management system that is both compatible and available.
What are the conditions that enable biodegradability?
We look at the process of how a product biodegrades to demonstrate the physical and chemical properties of the material and the specific conditions of the disposition environment needed to work hand in hand.
While industrial composting provides the most effective environment for rapid biodegradation, more work needs to be done to develop the municipal infrastructure in South and Southeast Asia to enable composting.
Setting standards for the bioplastics industry
While consumers are generally in favor of bioplastics, there has not been much education on what to do with these products post-use. Similarly, when it comes to making claims around the production of biodegradable packaging, a lot of confusion remains. We examine the various standards and certifications governing the labeling, production, and use of bioplastics, and provide an overview of the regional bodies that determine them.
So, are bioplastics more sustainable?
How do we determine just how sustainable bioplastics are? In short, it depends. While there is not a single answer to this question, the session concludes that biobased products are frequently found to have lower greenhouse gas impacts, but higher environmental impacts in other areas, such as water usage.
What is important when ramping up the adoption / implementation of bioplastics, is ensuring that education on the required environmental factors is meted out in order for combustion to occur, enabling a sustainable return to the environment.