Everyone knows the kind of damages we are inflicting on our planet. The massive production of petroleum based plastics and expanded polystyrene, a.k.a foam, not only depletes our already limited resource of oil, we are also churning out huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere through incineration, causing global warming which results in worldwide natural disasters of heatwaves, droughts, flooding and irregular weather patterns such as hurricanes and typhoons. Many countries will not be spared when sea levels rise from the melting of the polar ice caps.
More often than not, such plastics will pollute our land, air and sea if they are not removed in time, they will cause massive social and economic losses, and that is unfortunately the reality at hand.
We live in an age of convenience. We cannot do without packaging due to the immense benefits it entail, including hygiene and costs efficiencies. In this era of scientific advancement, it is definitively possible to invent the most suitable bioplastic to meet our packaging needs.
The process by which microorganisms (microbes such as bacteria, fungi or algae) convert materials into biomass, carbon dioxide and water when left by itself in nature, thereby avoiding pollution.
Degradation is a process whereby very large molecules are broken into smaller molecules or fragments. Normally, oxygen is incorporated into these molecular fragments. Typically, strong, tough plastic films become weak and brittle as a result of oxidative degradation. This outcome is because the molecules of which the films consist become much smaller. Degradation can be caused by heat, or exposure to UV light and is enhanced by mechanical stress.
A synthetic material made from a wide range of polymers that can be moulded into shape while soft, and then set into a rigid or slightly elastic form.
Any plastic that is either biobased, biodegradable or both.
BIOBASED BIOPLASTICS VS BIODEGRADABLE BIOPLASTICSBiobased bioplastics are made from renewable materials such as corn starch, whilst biodegradable bioplastics, on the other hand, can include fossil-based resources that can biodegrade. Biobased bioplastics are preferred to biodegradable bioplastics for they rely on clean renewables as feedstock unlike biodegradable plastics which depends on polluting finite resources like petroleum.
OXO DEGRADABLE / OXO BIODEGRADABLE
The accurate term should be oxo-degradable plastics rather than oxo-biodegradable. They are conventional fossil based polymers (e.g. LDPE) to which chemicals or catalysts are added to accelerate the oxidation and fragmentation of the material under the action of UV light and or heat and oxygen. They are not considered eco friendly as they do not actually biodegrade but simply fragment into tiny pieces. They are banned by the EU since Jan 2018.
Biobased bioplastics, made of natural raw materials, are carbon-neutral. Plant growth absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide. Using this biomass to create biobased plastic products constitutes a temporary removal of greenhouse gases (CO2 ) from the atmosphere. The pure material before conversion into any end product can boasts of this claim.
Here’s a simplified example to illustrate the concept of carbon neutrality:
- A renewable resource, for example a plant, takes in carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere of present times as it grows, and stored within the plant itself.
- This plant is processed and used in the manufacture of biobased polymers.
- When the biopolymer is incinerated, landfilled or composted (waste management), the same amount of carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere of the same present time.
- Since the CO2 (Green House Gas) was taken in and given off in the same time period, there is no additional CO2 added back, hence making this biopolymer, technically carbon neutral.
The above illustration does not take into account all other forms of carbon emissions during the production, delivery and post usage of the bioplastic end product. For that we can have to look at Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of each product. Notwithstanding any life cycle analysis, it is generally accepted that the end biobased bioplastic product has reduced carbon emissions. Traditional plastics, on the other hand, are made from crude oil or fossil fuels, releases carbon dioxide sequestered from millennia past into our atmosphere during waste management, hence adding on and burdening our already immensely high CO2 levels today, thus accelerating global warming.
In addition, no toxic gases will be released during burning (incineration) and the ash that is produced is non-toxic. It will not cause land and water pollution when they are eventually dumped in a landfill.
A circular economy (often referred to simply as "circularity") is an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. In other words, produce responsibly, consume efficiently and waste minimally. This regenerative approach is in contrast to the traditional linear economy, which has a 'take, make, dispose' model of production.
It is crucial to consider the length of the carbon cycle that comes along with a circular economy if we are to have meaningful contributions to the environment. Carbon cycling, nature’s biggest circular economy, will only produce waste that can be recycled effectively, thus creating the perfect circular economy.
Bioplastics which are biosourced and biodegradable, is the ideal candidate in the carbon cycle as it:
- Reduce carbon footprints and source from sustainable feedstocks which is a preservation and enhancement of natural capital.
- Utilizing compostable materials that return back to the soil (industrial end of life) and reducing the amount of fossil fuels used, the ideal way to optimize resource yields.
- Increasing the quality of bioplastics through environmental biotechnological innovations, thus increasing utility value, life cycle and functionality, as a means to foster system effectiveness.
COMPOSTABLE IN FACILITY
Being compostable is somewhat similar to that of biodegradation except that it is very much faster. The biodegradation process is carried out only in a composting facility, where they can be “encouraged” to biodegrade quickly. The conditions (water, humidity, temperature, lighting) are optimally tuned to bring about a speedy biodegradation. Products termed compostable will break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass.
Meaning one can simply dispose off compostable products into home based DIY compost bins. There is no need for these products to be further processed in composting facilities. This is the most responsible way to close the carbon loop quickly, with each global citizen doing their part on their own accord.
Fragmentation of “degradable additives” for plastics is not the result of a biodegradation process but rather the result of a chemical reaction. The resulting fragments will remain in the environment. Fragmentation is not a solution to the waste problem, but rather the conversion of visible contaminants (such as bags, cutlery, packaging) into invisible contaminants (plastic fragments).
Greenwashing is the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice.
LIFECYCLE ASSESSMENT / ANALYSIS (LCA)
Life Cycle Assessment / Analysis is a process to evaluate the environmental burdens associated with a product, process, or activity by identifying and quantifying energy and materials used and wastes released to the environment. The assessment includes the entire life cycle of the product, process or activity, encompassing, extracting and processing raw materials; manufacturing, transportation and distribution; use, re-use, maintenance; recycling, and final disposal.
Conducting an LCA is an expensive process and its accuracy is dependent on the availability, precision of its data compiled and the susceptibility to practitioner bias, hence explaining it’s sporadic usage. Due to these factors, it is only used as a general guide at best, if available, and cannot be used as the sole accreditation to ascertain the carbon footprint of a product.