The IfBB welcomes the EU's plastics strategy and wishes to rethink its use of plastics: Bioplastics can be part of the solution!
by Dr. Lisa Mundzeck
(Hanover, 08.06.2018) The IfBB – Institute for Bioplastics and Biocomposites at the Hochschule Hannover - University of Applied Sciences and Arts welcomes the plastic strategy published by the European Union and sees in the strategy many approaches for new research areas – also for bioplastics. In addition to the consideration of the material cycle from the product to recycling, it would be desirable to take greater account of the life cycle analysis (from "start of life" to "end of life") of plastics, because bioplastics are clearly advantageous here. Bioplastics are already being used successfully, saving fossil resources and can contribute to environmental compatibility!
In Europe, approximately 26 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced annually, but only less than 30 percent are recycled. 39 percent are burned, 31 percent are spent on landfills. 150,000 to 500,000 tonnes of plastic waste from Europe land each year in the seas [cf. Plastics Europe 2016, Eurostat, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Eunomia 2016, Zit. N. European Commission: a European strategy for plastics in a circular economy 2018, p. 6-8; http:// Ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/pdf/plastics-strategy.pdf (03.04.2018).].
The European Union's plastics strategy ("a European strategy for plastics in a circular economy"), published in January 2018, provides, among other things, the following objectives in order to achieve a new approach to plastics and to stop pollution:
- Until 2030, plastics recycling should be improved economically and qualitatively: all plastic packaging should be re-usable or recyclable.
- Plastic waste as well as environmental pollution from plastics should be contained and
- A more effective cycle economy along the entire value chain is to be established.
All steps should be strengthened by international cooperation with non-EU countries as well as with key regions worldwide.
According to the EU Commission, the first step towards the environmentally conscious use of plastics is the banning of various disposable plastic products such as drinking straws, crockery and cutlery, holders for balloons and cotton swabs. These plans were officially submitted by the EU Commission at the end of May.
The IfBB welcomes these plans clearly and sees the plastic strategy as an important signal.
"We explicitly welcome the initiative of the European Commission. On the one hand, low recycling rates and pollution from plastics make it clear that there is an urgent need for a new approach to them. On the other hand, plastics have become indispensable for our daily lives. At IfBB, we have been researching bioplastics for many years as a sustainable alternative to conventional plastics, " says Prof. Hans-Josef Endres, head of the Institute.
"We need to see the crisis as an opportunity and rethink the way we deal with all plastics. Bioplastics, degradable as well as durable, can also contribute their part to the solution of the global plastics problem if they are used correctly and sensibly. This depends very much on the used bioplastics and the intended application area," Endres continues.
The EU also sees so-called alternative materials, such as bio-based plastics, as a building block of a new plastic and recycling industry in Europe and looks at the following:
- To promote innovation in bio-degradable materials that are completely biologically degraded in seawater and freshwater and which are harmless to the environment and ecosystems,
- development of alternative materials, including bio-based and gaseous, to save fossil resources,
- study of the effects of alternative raw materials for plastics production, including biomass, on their lifecycle,
- examination based on available scientific information on the possibilities of supporting the development of alternative raw materials in plastics production.
"The EU plastics strategy is a first step towards promoting alternative materials. It is now important to initiate tangible measures at country level," says Endres. "Conventional plastics from a technical point of view are still several decades ahead of the bioplastics. In the end, it is important that bioplastics offer similar properties to conventional plastics, because they belong to the same material group. "
It is certain that, in the actions proposed by the EU in the strategy, bioplastics can already bring ecological as well as economic benefits depending on the application. The following points of the EU strategy IfBB as essential:
1. Plastic Recycling:
Design for recycling: Not the design of a product, but its recyclability should be at the forefront of development. A clear regulation is necessary for design-friendly packaging. Recycling unfriendly packaging such as composite materials should be questioned. As for conventional plastics, recyclability must also be evaluated for bioplastics.
Increase in recycling capacity: Plastic packaging waste is recycled similarly frequently as packaging materials such as glass or paper: here, from IfBB's point of view, consumer education is important as well as the further technical optimization along the entire process chain with focus on the maximum quality of recyclate.
According to the EU strategy, sorting and recycling capacity will quadruple to 2030, which will lead to 200,000 new jobs across Europe. Recycled plastics are to become an important raw material for the industry that is well established in the market.
This is always to be welcomed: in principle, plastics should be used only in material and then energetically, resulting in a maximum cascade benefit. Residual materials can also be recycled for the production of bioplastics. At the IfBB, two research projects are currently underway, examining the coffee set and straw for use in biocomposite materials.
The recycling of bioplastics is also basically possible from IfBB's point of view. This was confirmed by extensive investigations of the IfBB during a research project in conjunction with eight partners [the study entitled "Sustainable recycling strategies for products and waste from bio-based plastics" was approved by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) promoted by its promoter, the Agency for renewable raw materials E. V. (FNR). For more information, see: www.fnr.de/projektfoerderung/projekte-und-ergebnisse/projektverzeichnis (19.03.2018).]. So-called drop-ins, i.e. bioplastics with the same chemical composition as their petrochemical counterparts (e.g. bio-PE), can easily be fed to conventional material flow, chemically novel plastics such as PLA (polylactic acid) with usual techniques are separated and recycled. Bioplastics also offer other disposal options (such as disposal in a biogas plant or CO2-neutral combustion).
Nevertheless, there is still a high demand for research from the IfBB's point of view when recycling bioplastics. In particular, the implementation of the existing recycling possibilities requires further investigations, since own material flows of bioplastics are currently (still) missing. The quantities of bioplastics to be recyclableed are not sufficient to make the recycling facilities viable.
2. Containment of plastic waste and the waste of the environment:
Research and promotion of innovative and alternative materials: in addition to consumer education, new waste collection systems and the containment of micro-plastics through new EU-wide regulations, the EU also promotes research and development of new materials to save fossil resources. In particular, materials that are completely biologically degraded in sea and freshwater and which are harmless to the environment and ecosystems should be promoted.
From IfBB's point of view, biodegradable bio-based plastics can be a part of the solution to stop the pollution of the environment, especially the seas. Because undesirable entries of plastic waste into the sea can never be completely avoided even in global disposal strategies, biodegradable bio-based plastics have the chance to reduce the ecological impact of unavoidable entries and use their naval degradability as a novel material feature.
However, before biodegradable bio-based plastics can be used in this way and for this purpose, there is still a great need for research that the IfBB is taking. For example, investigative methods of biodegradable bio-based plastics would have to be standardized under clearly defined marine conditions, analysing the product life cycle of biodegradable bio-based plastics, achieving long-term results and sectors where products or product parts could and should be substituted. The requirements are high: a positive balance sheet in the sustainability assessment is only possible in the case of residue-free biological degradation in the marine environment, minimizing the toxicity and avoidance of heavy metals and other hazardous plastic additives. At the same time, optimum use and processing properties are still expected.
3. Establishing a more effective recycling economy:
Value chain: The plastic strategy should take into account the entire value chain from the IfBB's point of view, from the raw material to the thermal recovery. This applies equally to both conventional and bioplastics. In a more effective value-added chain, sustainability assessments are also better: Bioplastics offer economic and environmental benefits if they are based on regional renewable resources. A national value-added chain could reduce transport costs, minimise transport routes and transfer material and product production to the EU. All in all, Europe became more independent of commodity imports from politically unstable countries.
Sustainability evaluations: By means of life cycle analyses, sustainable replacement materials and options are to be increasingly reviewed. Consideration of environmental advantages is absolutely important from the point of view of the IfBB:
There are currently no standardized regulations for sustainability evaluations of bioplastics (e.g. category rules). It is therefore advisable in a first step to develop a harmonised approach for conventional plastics and bioplastics in order to determine where there are advantages and disadvantages.
"To implement all these measures and thus to get closer to a new, more sustainable use of plastics can only succeed if all the disciplines involved work closely together. Product manufacturing and design, packaging, research and disposal – all these levels should work closely together. Promoting interdisciplinary cooperation in this field is also the goal of the IfBB. For us, the EU plastics strategy is all the more reason to continue and expand our successful cooperation with the industry so far. Only together can we stop the pollution and find alternatives, "says the vice head of the Institute of IfBB, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Andrea Siebert-Raths.
Für weitere Fragen steht Ihnen Dr. Lisa Mundzeck am IfBB – Institut für Biokunststoffe und Bioverbundwerkstoffe an der Hochschule Hannover unter Telefon 0511 9296-2269 oder per E-Mail an firstname.lastname@example.org gerne zur Verfügung.