Uptake of bio-plastics hindered by lack of waste knowledge

More accurate and regionally detailed forecasts are needed for plastic waste in terms of its management and environmental impact if greater use of bio-plastics is to be adopted, according to a new report.

The fact-finding Science for Environment Policy study Plastic waste: redesign and biodegradability looked at the feasibility of plastics redesign and utilising biodegradable alternatives on a large scale level to help reduce the amount of waste, which was estimated globally to be 230M tonnes in 2009.

It found that more research and evaluation was required to study the technology and cost impacts, and also to identify those products and polymers that provide the most benefits.

For instance, more work is needed to investigate whether current waste management infrastructure can deal with the new breed of bio-plastics, which can lower the quality of recycled PET bottles if they are not removed during the separation stage.

The European Plastics Recyclers Association has suggested that unless there are separate collection and recycling systems, both bio-plastics and oxo-degradable plastics could compromise the progress that plastic recycling has made over recent years. In terms of energy recovery via incineration, there is a lack of data on the gross calorific values of bio-plastics.

In addition, more R&D needs to be focused on the end-of-life stage of plastics, rather than the ‘use’ stage of products, and further research is needed on the extent of greenhouse gas emissions when biodegradable plastics decompose.

Bio-plastics currently only make up a fraction (0.1 – 0.2%) of the total amount of plastics used within the EU, yet they could help mitigate climate change by reducing petroleum use during the manufacturing process.

It is also claimed that the carbon emissions released at the end-of-life stage of bio-based plastics are offset by absorption of carbon dioxide during the growth of plants for their production.

Maxine Perella

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