There isn’t a day that I don’t see a post focusing on the negative environmental impact of plastics. I think plastics is getting rightly and wrongly criticised. Images of plastic polluting beaches (like the one above), the massive garbage trash vortex in the Atlantic Ocean, and animals being pulled out of the Oceans with their stomach full of plastics, clearly demonstrate that something is wrong, and that we need to act immediately.
In 2015, we consumed a staggering 322 million tonnes of plastic, and as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation outlined in their study entitled “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics”, the single largest application, with 26% of all plastics or 84 million tonnes per year, is packaging. And here is where we face the biggest risk to the environment. Latest figures show that we only recycle 14% of plastic packaging, the majority are destined for landfill or incineration, and a shocking 32% of all plastic packaging ends-up polluting the environment.
But is it wrong to blame the material itself?
We believe it is! Plastic keeps our food fresh longer, us healthy, medical equipment sterile, people’s bodies warm as fibres in our clothing, and reduces energy consumption in modes of transport as it lightweights them. Looking at various studies it is a very good material when you can ensure closed loops and therefore recycling, or sufficient cycles of down-cycling. It is usually human behaviour to blame, by discarding plastic packaging unresponsively, and therefore plastic packaging polluting the environment.
So, what should we do?
There are four things that we can do:
- Design packaging with recycling and added end-of life options, such as biodegradation, in mind;
- Create reliable recycling streams;
- Opt for biodegradable plastics where there is a risk of the products ending-up in the environment; and
- Educate consumers better, e.g. make it easier to identify biodegradable plastic.
What does this mean for bioplastics?
In our view, there are applications for conventional plastics (the one made from oil and gas) as well as biodegradable plastics. These two types of plastics will coexist as they supplement each other.
But until today the bioplastics’ conundrum prevented it from going mainstream, namely:
- Lack of functionality of existing bioplastics;
- Higher costs compared to PE when used for commodity applications; and
- Small and unreliable supply chain.
Last month we exhibited at Interpack 2017, the world’s largest trade show for packaging, and we literarily were overrun by compounders, converters, and brand owners. There is now sufficient awareness in the market that something needs to change. Though unfortunately key market players are still badly informed about bioplastics. We were asked by the trade visitors to provide some background on the bioplastics market, and why we think that the time is ‘right’ for bioplastics. This triggered us writing the following Whitepaper 02/2017: Why the time is ‘right’ for bioplastics! Download it here.
We need to change the way we work with and use conventional plastics, design plastic packaging with circular economy principles in mind, and switch to bioplastics as an alternative (where appropriate). But most importantly we shouldn’t demonise plastics as a material. There is a place for it!