Waste management of bioplastics and biopackaging

By Harald Kaeb and Erwin Vink of European Bioplastics

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Waste management, Recycling

Bioplastics and biopackaging offer multiple waste management
options, but these will only be developed in full when there is
more material on the market, according to the industry.

Bioplastics are often criticized on the grounds that there are no waste management systems in place. The latter is true, since nobody can expect that waste management systems are in place starting from day 1. In fact they are often still not in place for materials which are on the market for several decades. As bioplastic and biopackaging applications get more traction in the market, the industry organization, European Bioplastics, is increasingly asked to comment on the consequences of the introduction of these materials in national and regional waste management systems throughout Europe. Most bioplastics are derived from annually renewable raw materials. These materials do not require fossil carbon as a building block, but in fact, 'cycle' carbon from the atmosphere captured by plants during the growing process. When bioplastic-based packaging materials (biopackaging) are incinerated or composted, the renewable or biogenic carbon harvested by the plants during the growing season is returned to the atmosphere. Therefore, renewable carbon is cycled in a closed loop. However bioplastics manufacturing also needs fossil fuels to drive the different production steps. Several bioplastics producers are replacing a part of these fossil fuels by renewable energy. The overall assessment of the environmental impact of bioplastics as compared to other forms of packaging is a complex matter, for which LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) is often used as a tool. This tool is a systems analysis tool that accounts for and assesses the relevance of all the environmental interventions, such as raw material use, air and water emissions and final waste produced, associated with a product or service, covering all stages in a product's life, from the extraction of resources to ultimate disposal. Since LCA covers the complete life cycle, it is a good tool to identify and optimize waste management options. Organizing the most optimized waste management system is not an easy task and is dependent on local infrastructures for collection and recycling, local and regional regulations, the total volume on the market available and the composition of waste streams. This is also a primary reason why conventional packaging is not always treated in the same way across the EU. Most countries have set up systems to recover and recycle plastic bottles, but for most other packaging, the results are more fragmented and not always very well developed. In many cases, mixed fossil-based plastic waste fractions are being incinerated and by doing so, energy is being recovered. Biopackaging that would end up in these waste fractions will also be incinerated with energy recovery, but will generate renewable energy instead, since the carbon is renewable resource based. With both bioplastics and biopackaging in their infancy, the development of the market should not be delayed even though the most optimal recovery systems have often not been recognized by local authorities. The risks associated with existing recovery schemes should be monitored. These will be limited at this time given the relatively small volumes that currently enter the market. Once volumes reach a critical mass, waste management systems which make most sense from an environmental and economic point of view can be set up. Over time, recycling may be the best option for certain bioplastics, especially if a homogenous stream can be organized such as in place for plastic bottles. Today, there is immense value in increasing the use of bioplastics for food packaging and food service ware especially where industrial composting has the potential to divert a large portion of the organic food waste stream away from landfill disposal and incineration. These package/food waste streams are generated at many different places within the modern society such as quick-service restaurants, canteens, retailers, music festivals, sport arenas and households. To do this right, clear material identification and separation in the waste stream is required. Opening up these composting systems for biopackaging, is another way of closing the loop for these innovative packaging solutions. In addition, composting systems are economically very competitive compared with incineration. The generated compost can be used to increase the carbon content in the soil and to maintain soil fertility. European Bioplastics and its members are committed to contribute positively to these discussions and work groups in order to facilitate the use of these innovative new materials - all while striving to minimize any impact on existing waste management streams. As people around the globe are also working to make us less dependent on fossil raw materials and reduce greenhouse gas emissions the use of bioplastics and biopackaging solutions can contribute to this in a meaningful way as well. Harald Kaeb is chairman of the European Bioplastics Board. Erwin Vink is a member of the board and also works for NatureWorks LLC

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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