Bioplastics: Fostering a Sustainable and Resource Efficient Circular Economy

by Hasso von Pogrell Managing Director of European Bioplastics

Today, there is a bioplastic alternative to almost every conventional plastic and corresponding application. Bioplastics – plastics that are biobased, biodegradable, or both – have the same properties as conventional plastics and offer additional advantages, such as a reduced carbon footprint or additional waste management options such as compostability.

Bioplastics are an essential part of the bioeconomy and a fast-growing, innovative industry that has the potential to decouple economic growth from resource depletion and environmental impact. Yet, an integrated political and economic framework is needed to unlock the potential of a full-scale market introduction of bioplastics.

Dynamic Growth Potential

Currently, bioplastics still only represent well under 1% of the about 300 million tonnes of plastic produced annually. But as demand is rising and with more sophisticated materials, applications, and products emerging, the market is already growing by about 20 to 100% per year. According to the latest market data compiled by European Bioplastics, global production capacity of bioplastics is predicted to quadruple in the medium term – from around 1.6 million tonnes in 2013 to approximately 6.7 million tonnes by 2018.

While Asia is predicted to further expand its role as major bioplastics production hub, accounting for about 75% of bioplastics by 2018, Europe – at the forefront of research and development – will be left with a mere 8% of production capacities. Asia and the USA are already investing strongly in measures “closer to market introduction” to promote faster market development.

Using biomass that is sustainably sourced and regrows on an annual basis is a major environmental benefit of biobased plastic products. Biobased plastics have the unique advantage over conventional plastics to reduce the dependency on limited fossil resources and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or even be carbon neutral. Consequently, biobased plastics can help greenhouse gas emissions reduction.

Moreover, bioplastics can make a considerable contribution to increased resource efficiency through a closed resource cycle and use cascades, especially if biobased materials and products are being either reused or recycled and eventually used for energy recovery (i.e. renewable energy).

The feedstock currently used for the production of bioplastics relies on only about 0.01% of the global agricultural area. Sustainable sourcing of the renewable feedstock and good agricultural practices and technologies are continuously enhanced and ensured through the emergence of reliable and independent sustainability certification schemes.

Increasing Waste Management Efficiency – Making Waste a Valuable Resource

Bioplastics are suitable for a broad range of end-of-life options, including reuse, mechanical or organic recycling, and energy recovery. The overwhelming part of the bioplastic volume produced today can easily be recycled alongside their conventional counterparts where separate recycling streams for certain plastic/bioplastic types exist (e.g. biobased PE in the PE-stream or biobased PET in the PET stream). This way, bioplastics contribute to higher recycling quotas and the implementation of the circular economy.

Furthermore, using compostable plastic products such as (biowaste) bags, food packaging and cutlery, strengthens industrial composting (organic recycling) as a waste management option and helps to increase waste management efficiency. Compostability is a clear benefit when plastic items are mixed with biowaste. The use of compostable plastics makes the mixed waste suitable for organic recycling. It enables the shift from recovery to recycling. Additionally, separate biowaste collection diverts organic waste form recycling streams or from landfills and increases the volumes of valuable compost.

Solutions to the global challenges

The bioplastics industry offers solutions to the global challenges of climate change and increased resource consumption by providing the means for a shift to renewable resources and resource efficiency. In order to realize the full potential of bioplastics an integrated political and economic framework is urgently needed.

European Bioplastics (EUBP) represents the interests of around 70 member companies throughout the European Union. With members from the entire value chain, EUBP serves as both contact platform and catalyst for advancing and highlighting the objectives of the growing bioplastics industry vis-à-vis EU institutions in working towards an integrated policy and economic framework that supports the use of renewable raw materials.

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