Household plastic recycling is a disaster; can biobased plastics be part of the solution?

From the 8 billion metric tons of plastics which have been produced since the 1950’s hardly 10% has been recycled. Recycling of plastic waste is problematic in general, but this pertains especially to the highly polluted, fragmented mix of household plastics. To make anything useful out of this diverse stream is increasingly becoming a herculean task. With the global production of plastic set to double within the next 15 years we need swift and concrete solutions. Marginal gains won’t get us out of this recycling mess. Fortunately, there are ways to solve it and biobased materials are part of the answer.

Humans are the only species to produce waste, which is essentially a resource without an owner in the wrong place. What happened to the 90% of global plastic output that has never been recycled? It’s sitting in landfills - releasing methane-, or worse, has been discarded and is leaking into the environment. Mostly, however, it’s been incinerated, releasing toxic fumes and carbon, forever losing the material properties for the sake of heat recovery (euphemistically dubbed ‘thermal recycling’). Had we introduced a carbon tax decades ago, or true pricing for that matter, we probably have had to deal with a lot less plastic waste. This practical, lightweight material has almost no monetary value once disposed of (after a few minutes of use). Collecting, sorting and cleaning it is far too costly to make good recycled granulate that is price competitive with (unrealistically) cheap virgin plastics. How can we break the deadlock?

The reported recycling rates - fortunately they’re on the rise - are misleading: sorting plastics isn’t recycling. It is a pity that sorted plastic streams, sold on to other countries for further sorting, downcycling and incineration, are included in the official statistics. For the Netherlands and Germany, the 50-60% which is officially reported only means roughly 20% of household plastics is recycled into a similar product, while the other part is downcycled, incinerated and shipped off to Asia. Courageously, China refused to be the waste dump of the world any longer and has in 2018 largely banned containers stuffed with leftover Western plastic. Importers had found a gap and economic opportunity by filling empty containers on the way back to China from European ports. Sadly, this volume of toxic & polluted plastic has now been diverted to among others Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Half of all plastic ever produced was made in the last 15 years. Naturally, we can reduce our usage of plastic, eliminate and replace it with reusable products, but it seems like a drop in the ocean relative to these whopping quantities. It is my expectation and hope that we oppose the building of new plastic factories emerging in the US and Asia, similar to the protests against coal fired power plants in the last decade.

The essence of the very poor recyclability of plastics is the fact that hundreds of different types exist. Even 50 bottles of detergent will have 50 slightly different compositions making downcycling the least bad option (and always needing some virgin material). Plastic recycling is not the same as glass or paper recycling (which realises near perfect collection and recycling rates, reusing the material many times). Additives, modifiers, colours, fillers and multilayers all make for a perfect plastic recycling nightmare. They may make our lives a little easier, yet they practically cannot be recycled - let alone be upcycled - anymore. In any case not at a reasonable cost. New techniques, such as chemical recycling are costly, controversial and have yet to prove themselves. Legislation will need to curb industry into working with a limited number of plastics – pure mono materials as much as possible. Only then can we get to realistic and truly high recycling rates, the positive exception being PET bottles here (thanks to a deposit and effective return logistics). 

In addition to reducing our daily plastic usage, stricter legislation and a carbon tax (incorporating the externalities), biobased and compostable packaging can be part of the puzzle in solving this matter:

  • They’re made from renewable materials such as starch, bio-ethanol, cellulose, coffee grounds and algae.
  • Have a substantially lower carbon footprint
  • Generally contain less additives
  • Often have better barrier properties (keeping food fresh for longer)
  • Perhaps most importantly; compostable bioplastics divert organic waste from landfill and incineration and add valuable nutrients to compost! Compostable tea bags, coffee pads and fresh produce bags carry valuable organic matter with them.

 

Switching from oil based fresh produce bags to compostable bags also reduces the amount of conventional plastics in organic waste going to composters. Biobased plastics have the capability to represent much more than the 2% that they do now. When applying new feedstocks, residual and agricultural waste, virtually no additional arable land is needed. Biobased plastics fit very well within the EU goals to become a circular and low carbon economy. They play a key role in increasing recycling targets and achieving waste management efficiency. The majority of biobased plastics can effortlessly be recycled in existing recycling streams, and compostable plastics help increase separate collection of organic waste and divert biowaste from landfill and other waste streams¹.

Keeping the materials in the loop, closing the ‘technical’ cycle, is what recycling (or better yet, upcycling) does. Composting means that nutrients stay in the ‘biosphere’ where quality compost is the basis for new plant life cycles. Even though many bio-packaging products are single-use, Bio Futura very much embraces this philosophy of Cradle-to-Cradle and for that reason has teamed up with C2C NGO.

It is about time composters and recyclers fully embrace the potential of biobased plastics and start welcoming the materials into their facilities. Drop-ins like BioPE and BioPET can be recycled perfectly within existing streams, and PLA as well by using NIR technology (Near Infra-Red). On the composting side, biobased plastics do not behave differently than other organic matter, such as nut shells and thick branches. Under pressure from shareholders, composters are shortening cycle times and are increasingly phasing out objects which take too long to compost. It’s in their interest however to accept the likes of compostable tea bags, coffee pads and fresh produce bags. Products with a clear co-benefit that add value to compost for farmers. In the UK, MPs and academics have very recently lend their support to moving away from oil-based plastics compostable alternatives. 

Last but not least, when industrial composters are unwilling, there are other good ways to close the loop with organic matter and compostable packaging. Certified home compostable packaging is suited for garden compost and sturdy mobile, on-site composters are placed at schools and hospitals to locally close the loops and divert organic waste from other waste streams. 

 

¹ https://www.european-bioplastics.org/policy/circular-economy/

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