People and Environment

Bio-based plastics carry huge potential but also have their limits

A different view on Bio-based Plastics and why there is still work to do.

 

Bio-based plastics provide many advantages and added value compared to conventional plastics. On the other hand, there are several drawbacks, while bio-based plastics’ implementation is not accepted widely in different segments of the plastics industry. The current limitation of bio-based plastics include topics such as lack of consumer awareness and the right information about them, limitation in technical features, lack of legislation clarities and unclear policies, the adaption with existing recycling streams, and sustainability issues.

 

The lack of consumers’ awareness is a topic discussed today. One of the main difficulties of bio-based plastics today is the low customer awareness and high level of confusion among the end-users of bio-based plastics. According to several studies consumers have a considerable preference for environmentally friendly packaging products regarding product attributes, but only 10% of consumers are willing to pay a premium for environmentally-friendly packaging and this willingness is only for prices that are up to 10 or 20% more expensive than existing prices of conventional plastics. Due to the lack of understanding of bio-based plastics’ benefits, the difference between bio-based plastics packaging and conventional plastics packaging in customer perception is relatively low. Therefore, more public education is necessary to create and improve customer engagement in bio-based plastics which will lead to a higher preference for these products. On the other hand, it is seen an increase of young consumers are more concerned about the environment and have a higher preference for sustainable products.

 

Another drawback of bio-based plastics is that particular types of bio-based plastics show limitations in their properties. Even though in some specific applications, bio-based plastics show the same or even better performance than conventional plastics (PEF and PET), in general, their performance falls behind the performance of fossil-based plastics, especially on the thermal resistance. Most of the types of bio-based plastics have a relatively low thermal resistance. Other limitations are strong interdependence among mechanical, thermal, and barrier properties. On the other hand, many product developments are expected to exceed the existing conventional plastics regarding their properties making bio-based products superior to conventional plastics.

 

Even though several initiatives are currently underway from European Union, such as the “Lead Markets Initiative” for bio-based products, “Bio-economy Strategy,” or “Circular Economy Package,” there is still not a unified legislative framework to promote the use of sustainable bio-based raw materials as a substitute of conventional plastics. While many countries in Europe have started to adopt the right regulation regarding laws, labeling, and tax benefits (Italy, France, etc.), others fall behind.

The inconvenience of bio-based plastics is stated frequently, means that most of the bio-based plastics contaminate the existing recycling streams and they need new ways of handling the end life options. Various bio-based plastics allow recycling in existing recycling streams of conventional plastics. Other types need special treatment to be biodegraded. If these bio-based plastics are not collected and sorted correctly, they can contaminate the whole recycling stream by downgrading the raw material quality. PLA is one of the raw materials that can affect the quality of the recycling process’s end product, be it bio-based or conventional plastic. But also in this direction, there are several developments which reduce the degree of this problem. Technologies such as Near-Infrared sorting technology can help recycling companies in sorting different materials in their machinery and diving the materials based on their recyclability.

 

Compared with conventional plastics that require no land to produce, bio-based plastics require the land to produce feedstock production. According to European Bioplastics, to produce bio-based plastics in 2019 at a quantity of 2.11 million tonnes, 0.79 million hectars of arable land was required. That accounts only for 0.016% of total arable land on a global scale, and it is expected to reach up to 0.020% of entire global arable land by the end of 2025. These figures show that bio-based plastics are a sustainable solution, even if we consider the land used to produce feedstock. When land usage is sustainable, it does not release large quantities of stored carbon dioxide. Also, when talking about Tapioca as the base, the production of bio-resins will not create competition in land used in food production.

 

Currently it’s a transition period, bio-based plastics will be increasingly present, maybe not for the whole range of plastics products but for a significant part of it – that seems to be granted!


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