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Can we make biodegradable bio plastics really environmental friendly?

Plastics simply don’t dissolve, and will be the future fossils that depict the human era on earth. In the Youtube hit “What if humans disappeared”, published on the AsapSCIENCE, the creator of the video describes how human tracks dissolve over time, in case the human race would extinct. Most of our artefacts will digest or burn to ashes, except for the ones made out of plastics.

Plastics simply don’t digest. However, times are changing. Today’s biodegradablebio plastics might offer a solution to the accumulation of non-digestible plastic waste. But should we massively shift to this kind of bio plastics? Not yet, we first need to tackle the environmental issues that accompany the production of bio plastics.

October 2015 Enviu will officially launch the Plastic Fantastic Challenge. During this challenge, European masterminds are called to redesign the plastic value chain with innovative systemic business solutions. Plastic waste is becoming a serious issue, now that plastic waste is piling up and leaking into our environment. In order to bring change to this issue, we need disruptive ideas, that can upset Business-As-Usual, like Uber did within the Taxi industry, or AirBNB did within the leisure industry. The bio plastics market is evolving rapidly. Could this be a game changer like the mentioned examples did in other industries?

Not all bio plastics are biodegradable

The family of bio plastics is roughly divided into three main groups: (1) Biobased non-biodegradable plastics, (2) Bio based and biodegradable plastics and (3) Fossil resource based and biodegradable plastics. This means the term bio plastic does not directly mean that plastics are made from biomass (organic materials), or can be composted. Compostable bio plastics PHA, PLA, and PBS are well known for their biodegradability and are mostly made out of corn, sugarcane or cellulose.

Its biodegradability might suggest that these kinds of plastics offer a circular solution for plastic, and in fact, that’s true. On the other hand, the production process might raise some environmental questions:

1. We need scarce farmland to produce biomass

Whether we talk about corn, sugarcane or cellulose, we need farmland to cultivate these resources. We need this land to cover our worldwide food demand. The U.S. Agency for International Development states that the growth of our global population calls for a 70 percent increase in food to meet demand. Our farmland is too precious to produce resources for bio plastics.

And don’t let history repeat itself. Let’s not sacrifice our natural landscape for the production of biomass. In the beginning of this century, the expansion of Brazil’s biofuel production transformed the ecosystem in the Cerado area drastically. More than 50 percent of the Cerrado has been transformed into pastureland, causing soil erosion, biodiversity loss, fragmentation, and the spread of nonnative grasses caused by inter alia soy bean farming. As a result, desertification has become a serious threat to these areas.


2. Bioplastic can contaminate conventional plastic recycling

Now that the production of bio plastics is growing with 20 to 30 percent each year, we start to experience problems with separating the plastic waste in a right way. In 2009, a large soda drink company started using non-degradable bio plastics made from sugarcane in its bottles. Until now the the bottle has been made using 30% of sugarcane material in combination with 70% of the traditional PET.

For consumers this can get confusing. Are the bottles supposed to be deposited in a plastic bin, or in the organic waste bin? In case the latter is done, it’ll be rooted out and sent to the landfill instead of being recycled. PLA can be mechanically separated from PET using an infrared sensor. However, this process is mainly too expensive for recyclers.

3. Emissions generated in the production of bio plastics

Though bio plastics have a lower carbon footprint than petroleum-based plastics, its production still has its costs. For instance, to make one kilo of PLA, you will need about 2,5 kilo’s of corn. To grow 2,5 kilo’s of corn, you will need more than1250 liters of water. Think besides that of the pesticides and fertilisers that are used to grow the crops.

Another thing is that biodegradable plastics require specific conditions to digest properly (micro-organisms, the right temperature and humidity). In case this is not managed properly, they may be worse for the environment than conventional plastics. In case biodegradable plastics are put into landfill they produce harmful greenhouse gases (such as methane) when breaking down.

A great challenge ahead of us

Despite the environmental questions, bio plastics offer a great innovative approach to solving the plastic waste issue. The market is fully in development and sharp questions enable us to improve and continue innovation. Do you already know great ideas that prevent the environmental issues that have been described above? Or do you know other great examples of circular business models that help us reduce plastic packaging waste? Go, pre-subscribe for the challenge, and share your inspiration!