Plant-based plastics reap a better harvest in 2022

Consumers intuitively understand that to get to net zero, we must move away from conventional plastic made from oil and gas. But bioplastics made from renewable raw materials have faced regulatory barriers in Europe. Now, finally the authorities seem to be catching up with public opinion, and the tide is turning, with some good news announced in 2022.

At the end of November, a proposed regulation on packaging and packaging waste (PPWR), which will increase demand for compostable bioplastics, was published. The PPWR states that certain items, namely tea bags, filter coffee pods, fruit stickers, and lightweight plastic carrier bags must in future be industrially compostable. And certain bio-based plastics are ideal candidates for these applications. Nespresso, the world’s most famous producer of single serve coffee capsules announced recently that it will trial new compostable capsules to replace aluminium, in 2023. The paper-based capsules have an essential   biopolymer lining to protect the coffee against oxidation. Others have already introduced bioplastic, compostable coffee capsules. But, apart from this welcome acknowledgement of the benefits of compostable materials, the PPWR did not promote the use of other bio-based plastics. 

But all types of bio-based polymers need to be recognised as more sustainable than conventional plastic. And they offer a good solution for demanding applications such as food packaging where mechanically recycled plastic is just not suitable. The EU policy framework on bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics was also published towards the end of 2022. On the positive side, it accepts that new carbon feedstock will always be needed for plastics. In contrast, there is much negative discussion on challenges, greenwashing and pollution. The words litter and littering are used ten times in a thirteen-page document! However, another beneficial outcome is that the role of sustainability certification for biomass, as outlined in successive Renewable Energy Directives, is approved as a way of mitigating the risks associated with growing crops for bioplastics production.

The policy framework also referenced an EU communication on ‘Sustainable Carbon Cycles’ which proposed that at least 20% of the carbon used in chemical and plastic products should be from non-fossil sources. And it admitted that the Dutch government has already endorsed bioplastics and plans to increase the percentage of bio-based plastics to 15%.  Both are encouraging developments.

European Bioplastics, the sector’s trade association, has also recognised that, in principle, bio-based raw materials used to produce bioplastics should be subject to the same sustainability criteria as biofuels, outlined in the latest Renewable Energy Directive. Indeed, some of their members have already gained the necessary certification. GHG savings thresholds do not transfer over easily from biofuels to bioplastics and this needs further work. There was much discussion on the greenhouse gas savings of bioplastics at the end of 2021 and into 2022, with the industry insisting that biopolymers had been treated unfairly compared with their fossil counterparts in an official study. With this new acceptance that renewable raw materials must be part of a sustainably certified deforestation-free supply chain, and new measures that deal with the highest risk crops such as palm oil, the discussion becomes more about GHG calculation details and thresholds, and less about land-use change. 

The year ended with the publication of the bioplastic industry’s market forecast.  Global bioplastics production capacity is predicted to increase significantly from around 2.23 million tonnes in 2022 to 6.3 million tonnes in 2027. This prediction is based on evidence that both consumers and brands see the advantages of products made from biobased polymers. 

There is still work to be done in 2023. The benefits of bioplastics are yet to be fully acknowledged by regulators. Instead, official policy is still that mechanical recycling and reuse will be the main solutions, despite evidence to the contrary. Chemical recycling, also not fully recognised by the European Commission, does indeed produce high quality recyclate, but on the downside, there is unavoidable wastage and some leakage of carbon into fuel applications.

Bioplastics together with recycling offer a way of significantly reducing the demand for new conventional plastics.  Negotiations on the PPWR will continue into 2023. Change is still possible now that positive messages about bioplastics are no longer falling on stony ground.  

Published: 18 January 23

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