In the many years that I’ve spent writing about the niche in the plastics industry known as bioplastics, I’ve never ceased to be amazed at two things: one, the profound ignorance that abounds about bioplastics and even about what they are; and two, the double standard applying to this class of materials.
When it comes to bioplastics, a surprisingly high number of people – consumers, but also ‘professionals’ such as compounders, processors and design engineers –have only a faint idea, if that, of what they actually are or what they are made from. For that matter, many consumers are hazy about where plastics come from, period. A short 10 years ago, an online survey revealed that 72 percent of the American public was not aware that conventional plastic is made from petroleum products, primarily oil.
In that light, the fact that over 50% of the respondents in a recent German survey reported that they had never heard of bioplastics, let alone knew what they were, should not astonish. A mere 7.1% said they were confident that they knew what bioplastics were, but of this group, only 15% actually got it right. A whopping 67% thought that bioplastics were the same as biodegradable plastics, while another sizable share said that they thought that bioplastics were plastics made from organically cultivated raw materials. As a participant at the 2016 European bioplastics conference in Berlin remarked, the level of knowledge is truly abysmal. “I’ve even had people think that they could eat plastics derived from sugar,” he said.
Yet what also became very clear from that very same German survey was that people were “in favour of and demand sustainable plastic solutions that reduce our dependency on fossil resources and use resources more efficiently”, said Julia-Maria Blesin, a research assistant working on the project on behalf of which the survey was conducted.
What is needed is not more, but better communication. Technical information and facts are fine, but will only resonate and register with listeners if they can relate to them. Establishing a connection, making this information personally relevant will help to encourage the kind of engagement among consumers that is needed to truly bring bioplastics into the mainstream.
Educating the industry has also been an ongoing uphill battle, but it’s one in which, slowly but surely, ground is being gained, helped by the development of new materials with properties able to perform as well as, or in some cases even better than conventional materials. One example is PEF, a biopolyester with has far better barrier properties than its non biobased cousin PET. Also, drop-ins have been developed that can replace their traditional petroleum-based counterparts with no special modifications required to be made by processors. Bio-PET and Bio-PE are currently the most important, while renewable diesel supplier Neste has announced it will be launching a Bio-PP sometime next year.
And, as bioplastics become more readily available, prices have started to come down somewhat, although in many cases not yet enough for them to be a competitive choice.
This could be helped along by additional policies and legislative measures promoting the use of biobased products. Such measures could also help in educating the public about bioplastics while demonstrating their benefits. Moreover, a supportive policy framework would also go a long way to promoting a more level playing field for the bioplastics industry. Because the field is still most definitely tilted towards conventional plastics.
Emotional arguments are brought into the discussion, such as the debate about the use of food crops for materials, and arable land for plastics – although cotton, another industrial raw material, continues to be cultivated on that same arable land, and study after study shows that that amount of land used for plastics is a miniscule percentage. It’s simply a myth that plastics are taking away land that could be used for food.
By contrast, the environmental issues faced by the oil and gas exploration and production industry, such as habitat protection and biodiversity, air emissions, marine and freshwater discharges, incidents and oil spills, and soil and groundwater contamination, do not enter the discussion about conventional plastics at all.
And what about the end of life of bioplastics? In the first place, let’s look at another myth that obstinately refuses to die: because people think that all bioplastics are biodegradable, they think it’s ok to litter – it will simply disappear if they leave them laying around. Paper is biodegradable, too: does that mean that people will decide to deliberately leave it to pollute the environment? No, because we have laws about that. Those same laws apply to plastic – biodegradable and otherwise – as well. Rather than blaming plastics, it might not hurt to require people to take a bit more responsibility for their own behavior – and to educate them.
Secondly, it goes without saying that bioplastics, like plastics need to be disposed of in a responsible manner. Different strategies for end-of-life management must be devised according to application. But again, this is an issue that is not considered when conventional plastics are used.
And it’s this double standard that rankles most with bioplastics producers and processors.
As Andy Sweetman, marketing manager at Futamura never tires of pointing out: “Customers using conventional materials care about properties and cost. That’s it. Yet when they ask about using bioplastics, they want to know about properties, cost, biodegradability, compostability and all the standards the materials comply with. Conventional plastics are never asked to justify themselves. We are required to, and we do. But they should have to, as well.”
Good point, Andy.
Let’s work to make that happen in 2017!