In February, State Secretary Van Veldhoven presented the so-called Plastic Pact. Dozens of companies committed themselves to ambitious recycling targets to save the planet. Bad news for bio based plastics, because not all of them are recycled at the moment, they stand in the way of recycling ambitions. What about bioplastics and what is the future?
“Bad timing,” Caroli Buitenhuis jokes when we join her for a conversation about bio based plastic. After all, bio based plastic hardly plays a role in the ambitions of the Plastic Pact, which has been signed by almost the entire Dutch food industry. A lot of effort is put into recycling and reducing the share of plastic in packaging, bio based or not. As an alternative to fossil materials, plastic made from plants seems to be slowly disappearing from the sustainable ideas of the packaging industry.
As a consultant and packaging expert at Green Serendipity, Buitenhuis has been working on renewable materials for years, and she is a well-known advocate of bioplastics. “We have to look very far ahead,” says Buitenhuis. “Are we now making the right choices for the future? We don’t want to look back and think in fifty years from now: we really should have done this differently. “The ambition to reduce with plastic is unrealistic in her eyes. “We are only going to need more plastic. In the first place, this will mainly be fossil plastics and it is good that we will recycle it more. But it will never be completely circular; the quality of recycles is rapidly declining. At a gaven moment we must start using biomass.
Karen van de Stadt, packaging expert at the Sustainable Packaging Knowledge Institute, states that we are all inclined to think that it is a good idea to switch to bio based because you can get rid of fossil fuels. “That is certainly true in the long term. But now we are mainly setting up a recycling economy. The next step is that we want to move towards a circular economy, and we are not there yet. We want to reuse raw materials as much as possible, whether it is bio based or fossil. “
Biobased in the waste stream
The emphasis that KIDV places on the reuse of raw materials has to do with the fact that the composting of biodegradable plastics still has its hooks. Biodegradable packaging is in principle biodegradable in industrial composting installations if they meet the correct standard. In practice, this is often not the case. Contrary to what many people think, they do not break down in nature either. Officially they have to go with the residual waste, with which to incinerate. However, these plastics often end up in the wrong waste stream, which means they can influence the quality of the recycled material.
“There are sorting options that are not being used,” Buitenhuis claims. “Biobased material such as PLA could simply be sorted out and recycled, but it doesn’t happen. There are also developments and pilots to properly separate about eighty different plastics, including bioplastics. Eventually any type of plastic could technically be collected with the PMD (plastic, metal, beverage packaging, Ed.). ”
Van de Stadt agrees that it is technically possible to separate and recycle bioplastics, but according to her the problem lies elsewhere. “PLA is easily recyclable, but it is not widely used on the market. It is too expensive for sorting companies to sort on such a small stream. There are all kinds of ways in which you can do that, but at the moment that would cost society too much money. New technologies do not necessarily help. It is primarily a logistical problem. ”
Yes, it is a small stream, but that is due to choices from the business community, says Buitenhuis. She shows a plastic salad bowl, from which more and more Dutch people consume ready-made meals. “This is 80% recycled PET. Basically fine. But in the future it could also be made from recycled PLA. ”
Types of bio based plastic
The aforementioned PLA (polylactic acid) is one of the few bio based plastics used for packaging in the food industry. It is a thermoplastic polymer that is made from vegetable raw materials from, for example, sugar cane or corn starch. It is already used with fresh products, for example in bread foils and fruit trays. But it has its shortcomings. Because it is a breathable material, it contributes little to the shelf life of a product. And because of the high water permeability of PLA, it is also difficult to pack carbonated drinks in it.
Where according to Van de Stadt there are more opportunities are the materials bio-PET and bio-PE. “There is currently the largest share of bio based plastics in the food industry. That is the easiest transition because the making, use and disposal of the packaging is the same as fossil plastics. “Both types of bioplastic can therefore simply be recycled with fossil PET and PE. Bio-PE is made from raw materials from sugar cane and is completely bio based, but is somewhat more expensive than fossil PE. Bio-PET is approximately 30% bio based. Only one of the building blocks of the material, ethylene glycol, is extracted from sugar cane.
There is not much more. At least, for the time being, because both Buitenhuis and Van de Stadt are looking forward to new types of plastic. “We really need that,” says Buitenhuis. “Almost all packaging that we use now consists of at least three layers of different materials. This creates the necessary barriers. The question is whether we cannot replace those three layers with one layer of a new material. If such a material arrives, its use could be inhibited because it is not recyclable in the current system. ”
The KIDV is also waiting for such new material. Van de Stadt regularly uses the term PEF (polyethylene furanoate), and this almost seems like the holy grail among plastics. “It would be a better variant of PET, with a better barrier to gases and other beneficial properties, for example. And completely bio based. “But this material will not be available the day after tomorrow. The chemical company Avantium is currently scaling up the production of PEF, and their struggle shows how difficult it is to produce this bioplastic on a commercial scale. Plans for a large factory in Antwerp were canceled because partner BASF withdrew from the project after delays. For the time being, Avantium is therefore considering a market that is of a smaller scale than that for packaging plastic.
What is more sustainable?
In the meantime, the business community has to work hard to tackle the waste problem. But the question is whether the ambitions of the Plastic Pact are achievable or even desirable. If 20% less plastic has to be used, what will replace it, for example? “You could use less packaging here and there, but usually it is at the expense of shelf life and causes food waste,” says Buitenhuis. “Other materials will be used that are not necessarily more sustainable. You can see that already around the European ban on single-use plastic. We will make straws, plates and cups out of paper again. And that is not recycled paper. ”
Moreover, it is clear that the recycling chain will never become fully circular. According to Buitenhuis, the quality of recycled plastic decreases rapidly and because of food safety, recycled PE can no longer be used in food packaging. “We are not there yet,” Van de Stadt also emphasizes. If we continue to burn so much, isn’t it beneficial to do that with material extracted from biomass?
It is often argued against bio based plastic that its production will take up agricultural land. “Food always comes first. We should not start making bioplastics from products that are also needed to feed the population, “says Buitenhuis. “But there is also a lot of wasteland where nothing can be cultivated. For example, look at fallow land near industrial sites or Schiphol. Elephant grass is already being sown there, which in turn produces biomass that you can use. You can also look at residual flows from, for example, the potato processing or paper industry. “Yet she is also talking mainly about sugar cane and even sugar beet. Dutch sugar beet growers, who are struggling with the large amount of cheap sugar on the market, are already looking at the bioplastic industry as a new market. The loss of food-producing agricultural land therefore remains a real danger.
What is more sustainable, bio based plastic or recycled plastic? For the time being, it remains a difficult question to answer. In fact, the answer will differ per product. Buitenhuis and Van de Stadt generally agree. “Recycle must first. We now all have to work on that, “Buitenhuis also thinks. “But we should not focus on the waste phase. We must ensure that we do not slam the doors for new materials. “For Van de Stadt, new materials are a good option for the long term, but achieving circularity is more important. “If you make something bio based and then burn it, you are not on your way to a circular economy. You have to deal efficiently with what you use, whatever material that is. ”
For more information visit https://www.evmi.nl/artikelen/bioplastics-de-stand-van-zaken-na-het-plastic-pact (dutch only)