Biodegradable Plastics

By Maud Bekink and Boris Smeenk

Introduction

The Dutch government is supporting a very large project based on the development and improvement of bioplastics. This is just one project that has recently started but the interest in bioplastics is increasing all over the world. The attention of the upcoming plastics generates responses from the people. People start to have an opinion about the topic without really knowing if it helps to a better world or not. In America, Wall Mart is asking their suppliers to measure and report their packaging’s contribution to the climate change on so called ‘scorecards’ . This scorecard is not implemented in The Netherlands but there is a change that companies like Albert Heijn will follow this concept. A company does not want to show that they produce environmental damaging packaging. So, does using bioplastics have more advantages or disadvantages for the well being of the earth?

RESEARCH QUESTION: “What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of bioplastics?”

What is sustainability?

The definition ‘sustainable development’ has been used by the Brundtland Commission in 1987. The definition states: ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This involves addressing economic, social and environmental factors and their interdependence in an organization’s decision-making and activities.’ People value their own lifes and the life of their children. They do not always share the same opinion about what is good or bad with each other. This ensures a broad variety of interpretations of the definition sustainability. Also, the fact that the world is changing, more knowledge about important topics is gained which influence the focus on sustainability. As stated in the definition of sustainable development the three circles of sustainability are economic, social and environmental. These three circles are linked to each other. A lot of websites on the internet, like Wikipedia, offer an explanation of the circles.

Environmental protection – enviorment

Safeguard the earth’s capacity to support life in all its diversity, respect the limits of the planet’s natural resources and ensure a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment. Prevent and reduce environmental pollution and promote sustainable consumption and production to break the link between economic growth and environmental degradation.

Social equity cohesion – people

Promote a democratic, socially inclusive, cohesive, healthy, safe and just society with respect for fundamental rights and cultural diversity that creates equal opportunities and combats discrimination in all its forms.

Economy prospective – economics

Promote a prosperous, innovative, knowledge-rich, competitive and eco-efficient economy which provides high living standards and full and high-quality employment throughout the European Union.

Bioplastics – Three circles of sustainability

herkansing1

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What is a bioplastic?

A bioplastic is a biobased and biodegradable plastic. This means that the plastic is created from the nature and is able to go back in the nature. The plastic is biodegradable. According to the association European bioplastics and other associations which also use the same description, a bioplastic is a:

– biobased plastics produced on the basis of renewable resources

– biodegradable polymers which meet all criteria of scientifically recognized norms for biodegradability and compostable of plastics and plastic products.

Figure 1 shows the life cycle of a bioplastic when it meets both of the descriptions. It starts with the agricultural feedstock and also ends after the ‘product/user phase’ and ‘composting’ eventually into agricultural feedstock again. This life cycle is a ‘cradle to cradle’ life cycle because it starts at the origin and also ends at the origin.

ideal_bioplastic

Figure 1: ideal closed loop life cycle of an ideal bioplastic

Different biological terms can be used to indicate that a plastic is ´biological´, but not all of these terms mean that a plastic is a bioplastic. Some terms refer to the origin of the material while others refer to the end of its life. These biological terms give the consumer the feeling that a product is natural and therefore good for the environment, but there are a lot of misinterpretations about these terms. A research performed by WRAP (2007) about ´consumers attitude to biopolymers´ shows that most of the consumers do not really know what the difference between the terms, degradable, biodegradable and compostable is.  They associate them with the term ‘bio’ and therefore as ´good´. It is still important to make a distinction between the terms ‘biobased’ , ‘degradable’, ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ because they are often (incorrectly) used and it is easy to mix them up because some terms overlap other terms. For example, a compostable product is also biodegradable while a biodegradable product does not need to be compostable.

Ad- and disadvantages of bioplastics

Advantages are that they give a better image to plastics in general, no more use of petroleum, solutions for the problems of waste (because the plastics degrade in the nature), contribution to environmental protection and a new source of income for the agriculture. Life cycle analysis show that bioplastics based on renewable resources result in savings in energy consumption and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in comparison to the production of conventional plastics. On the other hand, they score lower on other environmental impacts such as ozone layer depletion and eutrophication.

‘Normal (oil based) plastic’ vs. Bio plastics

bioplastic_vs_normal

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Opinions

Maud Bekink

If bioplastic were to be used more by businesses and cooperations world wide, this would have an beneficial impact on the world’s forests and oceans. Even though bioplastic is currently still more expensive to be made than the plastic we are still used to, it still seems like a good stand for companies to start producing bioplastic as it increases positive brand awareness. For multinational firms this process will have less impact on producing costs as we are talking large scale production. For smaller local businesses, it is beneficial to gain a better reputation compared to other businesses in that area. If e.g. supermarket chains in The Netherlands would start to switch to the creation of bioplastic, it seems only logical that this will bring a direct change to the welfare and state of our country’s nature. Also , a lot of our products used daily by the majority of the public comes in plastic packaging which was proven to be relatively unhealthy for our bodies.

Boris Smeenk

Of course I’m all for biodegradable plastics. The (creating a) lack of oil, the dioxide emissions and the waste are a problem of the plastics we are using every day. A lot of companies (like Coca-Cola for instance) are calling their bottles a ‘PlantBottle’ while it’s not even biodegradable. Biodegradable plastics can become a thing if their is a lot of support of the big companies. The projects just need the funding!

The bioplastics on the market right now aren’t just good enough for mass production in my opinion. Those bioplastics are not biodegradable, which doesn’t solve the big waste problem of plastic.

Algae plastics, the ideal bio plastic?

Interviews

Marco Oosterbaan – Simon Lévelt

What do you know about bioplastics?

Not a lot actually, but since recently the company I work for (Simon Lévelt) is changing the normal plastic packaging of coffee to bioplastic so now I know some things about it.

Why did Simon Lévelt choose bioplastics for their products?

Well, we are a coffee company that tries to be as good as possible for our planet and inhabitants. If we have a possibility to reduce some of our waste, we would love to take that opportunity. Also, it’s good for the sales of course.

Does Simon Lévelt know that bioplastics are not the biodegradable?

I actually know that there is no such thing as a bioplastic that is completely biodegradable, but I don’t know for sure if my boss knows that. I guess so…ha ha.

Would you rather buy a product with a plastic or bioplastic packaging?

Of course I would rather buy a product with a bioplastic packaging, but you know, sometimes, you don’t pay that much attention in the supermarkets. And when you do, the product is somewhat expensive in relation to the non-bioplastic product. I would rather have all the company’s use bioplastics so that I don’t have to stay aware in the supermarket etc.

Patricia – Unemployed

What do you know about bioplastics?

That it is a scam.

Why do company’s (for example Coca-Cola) choose bioplastics for their products?

Because then people feel a lot less guilty after buying a  bottle of soda. People feel like they are doing something good for the enviorment.

Do these company’s know that bioplastics are not the biodegradable?

Yes, they use it to lead people in the wrong direction.

Would you rather buy a product with a plastic or bioplastic packaging?

I’m actually against the whole idea of plastic. Create a ‘plastic’ that is biodegradable and count me in.

Do you use plastic?

In this society I am forced to.

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