Are bioplastics good for the planet?

An ongoing argument about the life cycle assessment (LCA) of plant based raw materials for plastics production, illustrates how difficult it is to quantify the environmental impact of new technologies. The LCA, carried out by the EU’s scientists at the JRC (Joint Research Centre), indicates that overall, bioplastics are no better for the environment than fossil plastics. Industry representatives claim that the methodology used is biased against their products. Demand for bioplastics, however, is on the increase. European Bioplastics (EUBP) has predicted that global production will more than triple over the next five years (2021-2026), but the industry cannot be complacent.  The European Commission uses LCAs to inform new policy; already we have seen that bioplastics are given no preferential treatment in the Single Use Plastics Directive which is unhelpful to the industry’s longer-term prospects.  

With so much riding on the results of this LCA, it is important that is seen as fair and transparent. The disagreement centres on which effects should be included and which left out. According to the European Bioeconomy Alliance, more adverse effects linked to the production of the raw materials for bioplastics, such as deforestation, are included in the JRC assessment than for the extraction of oil and gas used for fossil plastics. And an important positive effect is left out. The plants that provide the natural sugars and vegetable oils to make bioplastic absorb carbon dioxide from the air as they grow. This sequestration of CO2 is acknowledged in the JRC's study but not included according to European Bioplastics. 

The apparent bias shown by the authors of the LCA is probably one aspect of the general unease amongst EU politicians at Europe’s role in the destruction of the world’s forests.  Deforestation destroys wildlife habitats and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The importation of palm oil, soy, beef, cocoa, maize, rubber, timber and other crops into the EU, accounts for up to 10% of the worldwide deforestation caused by agriculture.  But when it comes to intervening, bioplastics are a softer target than the agricultural commodities whose importation is defended by the international food processing industry. 

The projected increase in demand for bioplastics indicates that some brand owners are ignoring or reserving judgement on the LCA results. More importantly, they understand that recycling and reuse cannot be the complete solution to the single-use plastic problem. Some new plastic production will always be required.  Mondelez, who owns mass market chocolate maker Cadbury, recently launched its new vegan chocolate bar wrapped in ‘plant-based’ packaging.  The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) has just endorsed the use of biodegradable plastics, which are usually bio-based, for agricultural applications.

But despite these votes of confidence, the bioplastics industry should respond to European Commission concerns by tackling the deforestation issue head-on. They should pledge to purchase only sustainably certified raw materials from deforestation free supply chains and engage with wider efforts to preserve forests in developing countries. Sustainability schemes such as ISCC, Bonsucro, RSPO and RSB, are already approved by the European Commission for tackling deforestation in the biofuels sector. These same schemes are also increasingly being adopted by responsible food producers. They have the systems and oversight necessary to satisfy public demand for rigour and transparency. Some of the largest bioplastics producers are already committing to buy sustainably certified raw materials so now is the time for the whole industry to follow their lead.  

Consumers intuitively understand that to get to net zero, we must move forward. By wholeheartedly committing to sustainably certified raw materials, producers can show that bioplastics are good for the planet, and that they are the natural replacements for their fossil predecessors. 

 

Have your say on the future of bioplastics by responding to a consultation recently launched by the European Commission on a ‘Policy framework on biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics’ 

Published: 5 January 22

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