25 June 2019

Compostable bioplastics can cut pollution and benefit the economy

There can be no doubt that society worldwide is beginning to wake up to the challenge of managing plastic waste. Plastics have revolutionised the modern world, bringing lower-cost products and enabling foodstuffs to be packaged in a manner that maintains freshness, thus reducing waste in both the supply chain and in the consumer’s home.

But as David Attenborough has shown to the world’s TV viewers, waste plastic packaging is finding its way into every part of every ocean. And as if to validate this view in perhaps the most extreme of possible locations, a plastic bag was even reportedly found by Victor Vescovo during his record-breaking 10,900 metre submarine dive to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the world, in April this year.

While the negative effects of such plastic pollution are bad enough, it also represents a significant economic waste. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, most plastic packaging is used only once as a single-use item, and 95 percent of the value of this material is lost to the economy annually, representing a staggering US$ 80-120 billion globally.

In response to the environmental harm caused by plastic pollution, the UK government is taking a fundamental look at its regulations and policies relating to plastic packaging. In addition, the UK Plastics Pact – a cross-industry collaboration across the entire packaging supply chain – includes the targets that 100 percent of packaging should be recyclable, compostable or reusable, and that no more than 30 percent should go to waste by 2025. This is a perspective and an initiative that I and my team at Ricardo wholeheartedly agree with.

Compostable bio-based plastics offer potential for a more sustainable alternative to petroleum-based counterparts which are more persistent in the environment – particularly for applications such as food packaging. In our recently published report Plastics in the Bioeconomy, which we produced on behalf of the Biomass Biorefinery Network, we have found that there is the potential for a tenfold increase in the UK compostable packaging market. There is a demonstrable need for this material to substitute for petroleum-based plastics, especially for applications in which food waste might otherwise be trapped and hence contaminate the residual plastics recycling stream. Compostable packaging would actually help capture the food waste attached to packaging – think about the film covering ready meals – which would ordinarily contaminate conventional plastic packaging and end up in landfill, causing further emissions of greenhouse gases through methane production. In our analysis, we demonstrate the positive economic impact that a transition to compostable bioplastics for food packaging could deliver for the UK market. By 2025 the net annual benefit to the UK bioeconomy of a transition to compostable plastic packaging would be in excess of £267 million through biopolymer material sales alone. Additionally, there would be wider economic benefits to be realised through cost reductions in the collection and processing of hard-to-recycle plastics that have been substituted with bioplastics, particularly those that are heavily contaminated with food waste or comprised of multi-layer plastics.

Such a transition would, of course, require investment in infrastructure, a new value chain of crop residue-derived polymers, and the crucial public education needed to drive the behavioural change that will facilitate appropriate segregation and effective collection of compostable wastes and other recyclates. As our report shows, however, there are significant sustainability and economic benefits to be had, as well as a reduction in the tonnage of persistent plastic wastes reaching the world’s natural environment and oceans.

From RQ 2019 Q2 - read more here.