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Industry experts query whether bioplastics can solve the plastic pollution problem at sustainability conference.

“You can’t contaminate what you are not recycling in the first place. The bioplastic market for biodegradable plastic in the UK is set to grow to 200,000 tonnes by 2030, out of a volume of 2.3 tonnes of plastic in circulation.”

Bioplastics should not be seen as the panacea to the plastics pollution problem, according to industry experts who spoke at The Economist’s Sustainability Summit in London last week (21 March).

The speakers were debating on a topic entitled ‘do plastics really matter?’ highlighting the issue of plastic pollution.

Tom Delay, chief executive of the not-for-profit UK-based company Carbon Trust (@thecarbontrust), said the current topic of plastics could be compared to the diesel vehicle issue, where regulators initially backed the fuel but turned away from it at a later date.

He explained: “There was a great focus among regulators and consumers around the world to look at efficiencies of diesel cars, lower emissions and better mileage.

“It all made sense and it was pushed by regulators that diesel was a good thing to do for climate change per se. Then all of a sudden, we discover another issue comes along with a different time frame – air pollution and air quality. So, the regulators said that we should limit the way we promote diesel vehicles and the planet would like us to go to electronic vehicles, but they are not quite ready yet. So, we end up going back to petrol cars.”

He went on to say that this switch to petrol cars would help emissions to start rising again. Delay also said that the issue of plastics has a very similar analogy and that demand for plastic packaging was growing. He acknowledged that most plastics were going to landfill or incineration with “very little being recycled”.

‘Enormous issues’

Delay said that biodegradable plastics was “very appealing in many ways” as a solution to the plastics pollution issue, but it had a “bit of a problem”, adding: “In many cases, if you stick it into landfill it ends up as methane and that has dramatic GHG emission consequences”.

He also said that if you took biodegradable plastics and tried to feed it back into the recycling chain you “can actually damage an awful lot of recycling plastics because you cannot mix biodegradable plastic with recycled plastics…”

Delay added that bio-sourced plastic has “enormous issues” in terms of land use, stress on water and so on. He concluded: “It isn’t just plastic, let’s look at other things that do not seem to have a voice right now”.

Philip Lymbery (@philip_ciwf), chief executive for Compassion in World Farming, concurred with Delay. He questioned if businesses should switch from using fossil fuel-based plastics to biodegradable plastics made from corn starch, adding: “The problem with this is that you replace plastic pollution in the sea with chemical monocultures of maize, which are used to produce the starch to produce the plastic. It’s those chemical monocultures that leak into our soil, which then go down our drains into our rivers and into the sea. We need to question how we are going to live in the future. Do we even want a future?”

‘Getting things in proportion’

Speaking separately to Bio Market Insights, Bio-based and Biodegradable Industry Association director David Newman (@bbia_uk) said that there were genuine issues around the perception of bioplastics, but the panellists were not having adult debates about it.

He said: “You can’t contaminate what you are not recycling in the first place. The bioplastic market for biodegradable plastic in the UK is set to grow to 200,000 tonnes by 2030, out of a volume of 2.3 tonnes of plastic in circulation.

“The main bioplastics market was started to ensure that food waste returned back to the soil in the compost plant.”

“I wonder why all the opposition to bio-based plastics which constitute less than 1% of global plastic production, itself destined to double in the next 30 years. The reason? Money. Brands, retailers, marketeers, are scared of being forced into using a material which costs more. Lessening their margins. So, they deflect attention, attack bioplastics, make people forget about the disastrous environmental consequences of plastic use and production.”

You may also be interested in reading…

Read: Bioplastics to ‘play key role’ in implementation of circular economy and EU environmental directives

Read: Arla to use wood-based bioplastics in paperboard carton products.

Read: Biome Bioplastics unveils new tool to help detangle the ‘complexities of plastics’.

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