Concerns Over Bioplastics in Europe Grow

Resource Recycling

Media Contact: Jake Thomas

A new report from the European Commission's Directorate-General Environment has thrown more cold water on the prospects of bioplastics, pointing out some very practical problems with the pioneering material.

Of the concerns laid out in the report, one is how the feedstock for bioplastics could end up competing for land used to grow crops such as corn, soy, wheat or sugarcane that have traditionally been cultivated for human consumption. In recent years, biofuels have been sharply criticized for driving up foods prices, contributing to hunger and hardship in the developing world. If bioplastics are produced on a large scale, generating feedstock for them would require using land that could otherwise be dedicated to growing food for people, according to the report. It also points out that bioplastic feedstock crops also need water and fertilizers, the use of which could also carry adverse environmental effects. The report suggests that this issue might be resolved by using algae as feedstock.

Bioplastics may be renewably sourced, but the report states that this doesn't mean they don't produce waste.

"Instead, they produce a different form of plastic waste that may require different waste management systems. Biodegradable plastics do not directly reduce plastic waste either, but make it less persistent in the environment," reads the report, which states that incorporating end-of-life considerations into the design of bioplastics could help, but this too could have unintended consequences.

Producing bioplastics in large scale won't be cheap either, at least not initially, according to the report, which points out that factories will need to be retrofitted to accommodate production of the material and workers will need further training.

There is also the issue of how bioplastics will affect the recycling of more conventional plastics, according to the report. Bioplastics could reduce the quality of recycled products, according to the report.

In the meantime, the report recommends more study to determine the greatest potential for bioplastics.

"More accurate and regionally detailed forecasts are needed for plastic waste, waste management and environmental impacts of plastic waste," reads the report. "This will give a better idea of the extent of the problem and help identify where the introduction of bioplastics could have the greatest effect."

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