New advances in bioplastics, plastic resins that use plant carbon instead of carbon from fossil fuels, are the current hot topic in the world of green packaging.
Although, they are a step in the right direction and can make important environmental savings, they are not the whole answer to the problem. Potentially huge savings are being missed as end-of-life options for all plastics are severely limited by poor infrastructure.
The attention the consumer and the media give to how a plastic product is disposed of is no doubt the bane of many a plastic manufacturer’s existence. Landfill has become a dirty word, and biodegradable and compostable the new favourites.
This must be especially frustrating when one’s product uses significantly less non-renewable resources in its manufacture and has dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions, which is the case for many bioplastic manufacturers.
But there is a reason why people pay so much attention to the end-of-life of a plastic product – because it is where tremendous savings can be made, and where we are currently failing dramatically.
It is fantastic if your bioplastic shampoo bottle is greener in terms of its manufacture, but if it ends up in the landfill then only one half of the problem has been tackled.
There are two problems with any plastic, bio- or otherwise, living out the rest of its days in a landfill. The first is that even bioplastic is essentially immortal in a landfill; the landfill environment has been designed so material does not degrade. It will never disappear.
The second is that, once in a landfill, the energy and materials used to make said plastic bottle cannot be reclaimed; it has seen the light of day only once and will never be made into useful material again.
One of the big pluses for bioplastic as opposed to traditional resins is that they can be composted or biodegraded. Telles, the company behind the bioresin Mirel, claim its materials can even be buried in the consumer’s garden and will biodegrade.
This solves one of the landfill problems – it will disappear over time and liberate its carbon back in to the soil.
However, even this option misses a lot of potential savings as the useful material is used only once before the end of its life.
Collecting and breaking down this materials into its polymer building blocks and remaking it into plastic objects, which is entirely possible technologically speaking, would significantly reduce the overall environmental impact.
Although energy costs are involved in reducing a plastic down to its polymer building block and remaking it, they are likely to be significantly less than getting those building blocks from either plant or fossil fuel material in the first place.
The limiting factor delaying the whole process is the woeful state of recycling infrastructure. Recycling material means sorting it from the rest of the waste stream, collecting it and making it useful again and the infrastructure to do this, even for the most common plastics, is poor.
In addition, the more plastic types out there, the more complicated the sorting and collecting becomes.
A big increase in new materials that need to be recycled separately may make public collection schemes an improbable prospect and put the emphasis on private schemes, although this remains to be seen.
Either way, impressive as they are, bioplastics are not the answer to this problem and the drive for new innovative materials should not divert the focus from improving infrastructure for recycling plastic, and kickstart the market for them.