The Biodegradable Plastics Conundrum!
Posted: Apr 18, 2019
Standing at the crossroad between development & innovation on one hand & environment on the other, it seems solution to the problem of managing plastics waste is still eluding us.
Plastics is a miracle material. Thanks to plastics, countless lives have been saved & ensured safe food & water storage has been revolutionized
Plastic packaging accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste globally, and much of it is thrown away within just a few minutes of its first use. Much plastic may be single-use, but that does not mean it is easily disposable. When discarded in landfills or in the environment, plastic can take infinite time to decompose. Most plastics do not biodegrade. Instead, they slowly break down into smaller fragments known as microplastics.
Plastic bag bans, if properly planned and enforced, can effectively counter one of the causes of plastic overuse. Nevertheless, to tackle the roots of the problem, governments need to improve waste management practices and introduce financial incentives to change the habits of consumers, retailers and manufacturers, enacting strong policies that push for a more circular model of design and production of plastics.
Bio-based polymers are beginning to challenge conventional plastics across a range of food and beverage packaging markets, as a result of new material and technological developments. At the same time, the technology is still at a relatively early stage.
There is an increased focus on sustainable packaging by brand owners and retail companies and this is driving market demand for bioplastic packaging, according to a recent study by Smithers PIRA. Other market drivers include the availability of new capacities to boost supply and the development of ‘drop-in’ bio-based solutions. Furthermore, there is global increase in the implementation of plastic bag bans, which will benefit demand for biodegradable and compostable plastics.
Challenges Before Bioplastics
Despite the advancements that have been made in bioplastics for packaging in recent years, however, there are still drawbacks that could prevent the wider commercialization of bio-based polymers in many food and beverage packaging applications. These include the high relative cost of bioplastics compared with petroleum based -plastics, availability of raw materials, as well as issues of performance, quality/consistency and density.
Biodegradation is not a fool-proof solution
Partially biodegraded materials are still pollutants. Further, the results of biodegradation are water vapor and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia. So, if climate change is the number one problem, and greenhouse gas emissions are the primary culprit, one has to reconsider if the cure isn’t worse than the disease.
Current plastics biodegradation certification standards require disintegration. However, there are newer materials on the horizon that can biodegrade without the need for disintegration, which should lead to a significant reduction in the creation of microplastics. Ironically, this environmental benefit does not allow these materials to be certified for compostability or marine biodegradation.
It seems reasonable to reduce, reuse and recycle packaging than to have it biodegrade. Thus, the real value of biodegradation is a safeguard against environmental impact, should packaging "leak out" of a closed loop system.
Dr.R.Rangaprasad is a polymer & packaging professional with over 25 years experience.