In recent years,the strongest trends in the packaging industry all revolve around a circular economy. Why? At least in the European Union, it’s driven primarily by political pressure and consumer perception regarding packaging. China (and now India) are closing their doors to waste, environmental groups are lobbying to stop plastic pollution in the oceans, and the EU continues to strengthen its resource protectionism.
These developments are at the heart of the EU’s decision to embrace a circular economy. It relies on the environmental movement: reduce, reuse, recycle. What should we do to achieve the effect of protecting the environment?The answer is replace plastics with bioplastics.
On the rise is the increased use of bioplastics to replace fossil-fuel-based plastics. People tend to equate bioplastics with biodegradable or compostable, but they are not necessarily either of those. While bioplastics are certainly interesting substitutes (identical in many of their physical and technical properties to their fossil-based counterparts), using them might only shift the environmental burden by reducing the carbon footprint while increasing acidification, the water footprint or other environmental impacts. We also have to keep in mind that introducing bioplastics may only alleviate the plastic problem, not solve it. An ingested bioplastic bag may still choke whales and other marine life.
Beyond burden-shifting, we also have a supply issue. How can we grow enough raw materials required to replace fossil-fuel packaging products with bioplastics? The only way is to increase the agricultural production of sugar cane or other feedstock. But agricultural production is already pressed to its limits and straining land areas that compete with food production. Deforestation to prepare the way for more agricultural land is certainly not a sustainable solution. And even with bioplastics, we won’t solve the general problem of the end-of-life waste streams.
Our suggestion: Invest in R&D, but try to avoid competing with agricultural production. Only use superfluous biomass waste that has no other application. Use eco-design and think about the product’s end-of-life to avoid shifting the environmental burden to another area.