'Unrealistic' that bioplastics could replace conventional plastics soon

By Joe Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Janez Potočnik on plastic recycling at PolyTalk 2012
Bioplastics replacing petro-olefin based plastics seems ‘fairly unrealistic’ in the ‘mid and long term’, according to the European Commissioner for Environment.

Janez Potočnik, speaking at a summit in Germany, said bioplastics had their ideal applications but there were a number of significant problems linked to them.

He said at first glance bioplastic may seem like a quick fix because the market was rapidly expanding from what was still a ‘very low’​ production base, but it seemed unrealistic that they ‘could or should’ ​replace conventional plastics.

First, compostable bioplastics could contaminate the recycling cycle of conventional plastic, if not kept as a strictly separate waste stream, and this may require specific logistics such as specific separation or separate collection techniques.

“Second, biodegradable plastic requires specific technical composting conditions to decompose, which means that they do not yet provide a solution to either land or marine littering.

“Last but not least, bioplastics made of starch extracted from maize, rice, sugar cane or potatoes are in competition with food production and has consequences for biodiversity.”

Launch of green paper

Potočnik announced he would be launching a green paper on plastic waste in the environment to make full use of the benefits of plastics and minimizing potential negative impacts.

EuPR, a trade body for plastics recyclers in Europe, said it was looking forward to the launch of the green paper in order to start a new journey for Europe towards increased sustainability for plastics.

“Given the fact that our resources are limited, we cannot afford to continue the irresponsible practice of sending half of our plastics waste to landfills,”​ said Ton Emans, President, the European Plastics Recyclers (EuPR).

“Energy from waste should also be limited to non-recyclables to further push circular material flows.”

Plastic innovation

Potočnik said the volume of virgin material needed to be reduced by industry, adding it needs to “de-materialise not de-industrialise.”

“We need to develop smarter products that do the same with fewer resources, or at least fewer virgin resources.

“To get there we will not only need technological development and innovation; we will also need new business models that increase value added, decrease impact across the whole life cycle of products, and develop producer involvement throughout that life-cycle.”

Using plastic bottles can give significant transport energy savings compared to glass bottles, added Potočnik. 

Emans added: “Given the difficult economic situation, Europe must take the opportunity to save resources and create jobs at the same time. European plastics recyclers are ready to take on these challenges and contribute to a more sustainable plastics production industry in Europe.”

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