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Rolling out bioplastics in Europe

19/03/2011

  • Experts interviews
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European Bioplastics is the trade body set up to promote full deployment of these eco-innovative and resource-efficient materials, as managing director Hasso von Pogrell explains.

Plastics are the biggest consumers of fossil fuel outside energy andtransport. Bioplastics are a relative new class of materials whichincreasingly use renewable resources in their manufacture and offerbiodegradability and compostability. There is no single, simple definitionof bioplastics. The term can refer to plastics that are made from plant-based materials – bio-based – or those that are biodegradable; the two donot always go hand in hand. A bioplastic can be made from fossil fuels yetbe fit for compost, or made from plant materials yet resistant todegradation. It all depends on the intended use.

Where does the greatest potential for innovation lie in your sector today?

Generally we can see a changing focus in the bioplastics markets away frombiodegradability towards increased use of renewable raw materials – bio-based bioplastics. Sustainability arguments such as climate protection andthe decrease of fossil reserves make efforts to replace fossil-fuel-basedplastics with renewables-based ones more attractive. We shall see moredurable applications with an emphasis on reuse and recyclability enteringthe market.

Biodegradable materials can be expected to grow and improve performance inareas where biodegradability delivers a tangible and substantial advantage– for example: mulch films for agriculture. The focus for application lieson delivering products that are tailored to specific customer needs. Forexample: blends of bioplastics, conventional plastics and different fillermaterials for heat-resistant automotive applications.

What conditions do you need for the broad introduction of bioplastics inEurope?

The European Commission has worked out a set of policy recommendationstogether with industry stakeholders as part of the Lead Markets Initiative.

The fulfilment of – at least – part of these framework conditions wouldprovide a boost for our industry:

  • The bio-based carbon in products shall be deducted from their total carbon footprint;
  • Consider indicative or binding targets for certain bio-based products – as for biofuels;
  • Allow Member States to reduce taxes for sustainable bio-based products;
  • Allow bio-based plastic to enter all waste collection and recovery systems;
  • Encourage public authorities to give preference to bio-based products in procurement; and
  • Begin a reflection process with stakeholders on product labels and information for consumers.

What legislation in Europe today helps your business would you say?

There is no specific legislation at EU level currently helping thebioplastics business. Several policy initiatives such as the Europe 2020Strategy, strategies supporting the ‘bio-economy’ and the Lead MarketsInitiative are directly or indirectly calling for support measures to helpthe bioplastics industry. But it is unclear if any of these proposals willturn into practical help.

At Member-State level, several countries have established specific supportmechanisms for bioplastics packaging, such as severely reduced packagingtaxes in Latvia and the Netherlands, or exemptions from waste-managementobligations inGermany.

What is the role of bioplastics in the resource-efficiency and climateagendas?

Substituting fossil carbon with plant-based carbon can considerably benefitthe environment. In long-life plastics applications, biological carbon canbe retained for several decades. This not only removes CO2 from theatmosphere, but also creates high-value, exportable products that assistEuropean industries in maintaining their competitive edge.

By using domestic agricultural products, bioplastics reduce dependence onfossil- fuel imports and increase demand for products created by Europeanfarming, which supports the development of rural areas.

Bioplastics also contribute to the establishment of sustainable, efficientend-of-life options for plastic waste in Europe. They can be disposed of inmany different ways, including for energy recovery, mechanical recycling,composting, anaerobic digestion and chemical recycling.

What are the main opportunities and challenges facing your sector today?

The main opportunities we see are:

  • Broad support from policy makers and public opinion;
  • More and more brand owners introducing bioplastics;
  • Their sustainability profile;
  • Astonishing growth in production capacity; and
  • New fields of use opening up thanks to technical progress.

One of the main challenges will be to ensure the sustainable production ofrenewable raw materials and to find solutions to use the limited supply ofrenewable raw material efficiently. Recycling schemes can be installed torecover materials and energy. Recycling of bioplastics creates use cascadesand delivers secondary raw materials, and thermal recovery produces greenenergy.

Non-food feedstocks can be increasingly used in the future. The bioplasticsindustry has already demonstrated in research and partly in industrialpractice that specific production processes can be adapted to use foodresidues or other by-products instead of food crops. The bio-refineryconcept is also promising to transform cellulosic, non-food biomassfeedstocks into a variety of chemicals, such as ethanol, that can be usedfor bioplastics manufacture.