A report from bioeconomy consultants NNFCC has found that a paradigm shift from oil-based plastic to plastics produced from renewable materials and designed to be recyclable or biodegradable, offers the potential to address the issues with plastics while retaining its many benefits.
Adrian Higson, Lead Consultant Bio-based Products at NNFCC said in an interview: “Bio-based plastics are far less carbon-intensive than oil-based plastics. Because they are produced from plants that have sequestered atmospheric carbon dioxide during their growth, they can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions associated with oil-based plastics.”
For example, bio-based polyethylene resin produced by Braskem sequesters 2.15 tonnes of CO2eq for every tonne of resin produced i.e. it acts as a carbon sink. In comparison, the production of traditional oil-based polyethylene emits 1.83 tonnes of CO2eq.
Bio-based plastics have the same product characteristics as their traditional oil-based equivalent i.e. bio-based PET is identical to oil-based PET. It is, however, worth noting that just because a bio-based plastic is made from natural resources doesn’t mean it is biodegradable. Bio-based plastics can be just as durable as oil-based plastic. However, the use of renewable raw materials in combination with biotechnology-based processing allows the production of new plastics with novel properties and better performance.
Examples of new 100% bio-based plastics include the PET analogue, PEF, and the biodegradable plastic, PLA. PEF is an alternative plastic to PET; offering superior plastic performance in packaging applications.
Using PEF means less plastic is needed to make packaging, thus reducing plastic consumption, and extending the shelf life of packaged products such as carbonated drinks, reducing wastage in the food chain. PLA is produced from lactic acid; a molecule often used as a preservative in food. Lactic acid is produced from sugars through a fermentation (brewing) process.
Whereas a bio-based plastic is defined by the carbon it has produced from at the beginning of its life, a biodegradable plastic is a plastic that undergoes biodegradation at the end of its life. In this process, degradation results from the action of naturally-occurring micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae.
The adoption of biodegradable plastics is important to address the challenge of non-recyclable plastic waste. The can can play a key role in the circular economy, according to NNFCC. The collection of compostable waste needs to develop hand in hand with the availability of composting facilities, ideally through coordinated local authority action.
In 2014, UK demand for bio-based plastics as finished goods was estimated to be 4,000 tonnes, of which three quarters was imported from Europe. The industry supported around 1,000 jobs and added £50.5 million of gross value added (GVA) to the economy (including direct and multiplier impacts).
This represents less than 0.2% of the UK’s plastic consumption and demonstrates the enormous potential for industrial development.
Given the right circumstances, i.e. government policy creating conditions conducive to investment, the report estimates that domestic production could reach 120 thousand tonnes over a period of 5-10 years. “With the right investment in scale-up facilities, the UK could be the world leader in plastics, only this time it would export sustainable, biodegradable plastics, that help alleviate plastic waste”, says Higson.
The NNFCC estimates that an industry of this size would create over 5,000 jobs in primary plastic manufacture while supporting a total of 34,000 jobs and contributing £1.92 billion of gross value added across the wider UK economy. According to the report, the British agricultural industry produces enough biomass to supply a UK bioplastics industry.