Currently, global plastic production has reached over 460 million tons and accounts for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the meantime, plastic pollution is growing globally as waste management and recycling fall short – globally, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled while 22% is mismanaged and more than 40% of plastic waste comes from packaging1. Keeping these figures in mind, it is imperative to eliminate any plastic waste from the environment and switch to sustainable packaging materials on a mass scale as fast as possible.
The overarching problem of climate change accelerates the search for cost efficient and innovative packaging solutions. At the moment, the industry leaders are investigating two potential paths – to reuse and recycle plastics in closed loops and develop alternative solutions. Follow along as we uncover the benefits and drawbacks of bioplastics and recycled plastics and discuss their potential for creating sustainable supply chains.
Searching for the Right Solution
Bioplastics are a diverse family of materials, including three different groups of materials: bio-based but non-degradable materials (i.e. bio-PE, bio-PET and bio-PEF), bio-based and biodegradable materials (i.e. PLA, PHA or starch blends) and fossil-based but biodegradable materials (mostly blended with the second group). Their main advantage over regular plastics is the fact, that they offer new functionalities, like biodegradability and composability2. As a result, biodegradable plastics in theory allow enhanced end-of-life scenarios for disposal and recycling which may lessen the burden on our existing waste systems and the environment.
The market data proves that the solution is gaining in popularity. In 2021 global production capacities of bioplastics amounted to about 2.41 million tons with 46% of the volume focused on the packaging market, yet for now it contributed to only 1% of the total packaging material offer. However, this may soon change as by 2026 the global capacity for bioplastics is expected to grow to around 7.59 million tons3. One of the most popular materials within this group is polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable and renewable plastic derived from corn starch or sugarcane, which offers as many advantages as disadvantages4.
Analyzing Potential Advantages
One of the main issues with PLA is that it requires a lot of energy to produce. The process of converting plant materials into PLA involves several energy-intensive steps, including fermentation, purification, and polymerization. On top of that, the fertilizers and pesticides used to grow the crops used for PLA production could release more pollutants into the atmosphere, increasing its carbon footprint compared to other types of plastics5. Last, but not least, it can negatively influence local economies and promote deforestation of natural habitats since it’s made of sugarcane and corn starch.
Another concern with PLA is that its low melting point makes it unsuitable for high temperature applications which results in poorer performance in comparison to other types of plastics. Additionally, its high permeability means that it doesn’t offer a strong moisture and oxygen barrier what results in faster product spoilage (especially fresh food). PLA doesn’t compost fast enough for industrial composters and even when it does, the residue does not improve the quality of soil and makes it more acidic6.
Challenging Recycling and Waste Management
Last, but not least, PLA cannot be recycled through traditional recycling systems which means that once it is disposed of, it cannot be repurposed into new products. Instead, it must be sent to a specialized facility for composting, where it can break down over time7. However, not all countries have the infrastructure or capacity to effectively compost PLA, and it may end up in landfills or directly in the environment. What is worse, when PLA ends up in the environment, it breaks down into microplastics (less than 5 mm in size) and can be harmful to both marine life and human health.
The second widely explored plastic alternative is the high recycled content polyethylene (PE) One ton of this recycled plastic saves ca. 16,3 barrels of oil and 5,774 kWh of energy what makes it a significantly more resource-efficient alternative than producing a new plastic material8. By installing proper waste-management and recycling systems in place, the process of recycling PE will become much more effective and can generate real value. Many developing countries are starting to recycle PE foils as part of their legislation, but a broader international collaboration is needed to drive the change. During the last COP27 summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, the World Trade Organization announced various trade measures and recommendations that the governments can implement to counter plastic pollution. All these efforts contribute to creation of a truly circular loop where the used plastics generate value from waste, and we avoid sending recoverable material to landfill at all9.
The circular model for plastics closed loop where the used plastics generate value from waste and avoid sending recoverable material to landfill (Source: Plastics Europe)
Focusing on Closing the Loop
Another strong advantage of recycled PE is often just as strong and durable as virgin PE, making it a suitable choice for many applications. Compared to PLA, high recycled content PE is often a better option due to its lower carbon footprint, better technical performance, and ability to be recycled, reducing the amount of plastic waste that ends up in the environment.
To summarize, both bioplastics and recycled plastics pose attractive opportunities, however, it is crucial to analyze which one addresses better the challenges relating to waste management and the end-of-life options for plastic waste – particularly packaging waste. The ultimate goal is the same - closing the loop of the circular economy for plastics and thus optimizing supply chains worldwide, tackling climate change and reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals10.
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