Bioplastics are a key element in Europe’s transition to a low-carbon, circular economy, writes Hasso von Pogrell
Within the current discussion on the upcoming EU Plastics Strategy and the on-going revision of EU waste legislation, the potential of bioplastics and their effects on recycling efficiency are firmly in the EU spotlight.
Bioplastics are a key element in the transition to a low-carbon circular economy and can make a considerable contribution to increasing resource and recycling efficiency.
Through the strategy, the European Commission is looking to assess how to decarbonise Europe’s plastics economy. By replacing a significant proportion of the conventional fossil-based feedstock with certified bio-based alternatives, bioplastics can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the EU’s dependency on imported fossil resources, as well as contribute to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals and EU climate protection targets.
Market push and pull measures will be crucial to driving this transition, which should be encouraged by concrete legislative action such as minimum requirements for bio-based and recycled content in plastic products connected to green public procurement, or incremental minimum content targets as recently achieved with France’s energy transition law. To ensure that responsible sourcing and food security criteria are met, this approach must be underpinned by smart sustainability.
Bioplastics can also make a considerable contribution to increased resource efficiency through a closed resource cycle and successive (cascaded) use, especially when being reused or recycled. Bioplastics are suitable for a broad range of end-of-life options. The overwhelming volume of bioplastics currently being produced are already being mechanically recycled. Bio-based drop-in plastics, such as bio-based PE or bio-based PET, make up the major share of today’s bioplastics production (about 75 per cent) and are recyclable alongside their conventional counterparts in existing recycling streams.
Biodegradable and compostable plastics, on the other hand, offer additional end-of-life options through composting or anaerobic digestion. Organic recycling is a well-established industrial process ensuring the circular use of biodegradable plastics while creating a strong secondary raw material market and opportunities for renewable energy generation. Several so-called lighthouse projects throughout Europe -including in the cities of Milan, Munich, and Paris are demonstrating the positive effects of compostable bags on the efficiency and quality of separate organic waste collection.
“Bioplastics can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the EU’s dependency on imported fossil resources, as well as contribute to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals and EU climate protection targets”
Biodegradable plastics are designed to be treated in industrial composting plants. If they do enter mechanical recycling streams, they can be sorted out by available sorting technologies such as NIR (near infrared), as recent tests by the German research institute Knoten Weimar show. A study by the University of Wageningen, which analysed biodegradable plastics in mechanical recycling streams and detected levels not higher than 0.3 per cent, found no negative effects on the properties of recycled products.
However, the contamination of organic waste streams with non-biodegradable plastics is still very high and is a real problem for composting facilities, negatively affecting compost quality. The Italian Composters Consortium (CIC) together with the country’s National Consortium for the Collection and Recycling of Plastic packages (Corepla) conducted tests in 27 composting plants and found that organic waste contamination by non-compostable plastics was, on average around 3.1 per cent.
Bio-waste represents around half of Europe’s municipal waste streams but only about a quarter are currently collected separately and organically recycled. Around 100 million tonnes annually are ‘wasted’ across the EU and lost as a valuable resource. At the same time, mechanical recycling streams carry the burden of dealing with contamination.
This problem can only be tackled by establishing the mandatory separate collection of organic waste supported and facilitated by the use of biodegradable plastic bags and packaging and accompanied by consumer education and information on correct waste disposal. Key applications in this context are bio-waste bags and packaging for perishable food products.
“The implementation of separate collection and the development of mechanical and organic recycling streams throughout Europe is key”
In order to improve the quality of material that is recyclable, achieve higher mechanical recycling targets, and to increase waste management efficiency, the implementation of separate collection and the development of mechanical and organic recycling streams throughout Europe is key.
Therefore, recycling needs to be considered as both mechanical and organic recycling in the EU waste legislation and to contemplate the corresponding plastic materials in this context.
Furthermore, comprehensive projects to increase consumer knowledge on correct disposal are crucial for the efficiency of waste collection. Only then will recycling become more efficient and allow us to limit contamination and leakage into the environment while developing a flourishing secondary raw material market in a circular economy.