18 September 2018

Position paper: “Recycling Bioplastics”

Can Bioplastics Be Recycled?

Bioplastics are considered a sustainable alternative to plastics made from petroleum. Should these materials be used more frequently, for instance in packaging? The environmentally friendly potential of bioplastics will only be fully realized when it is also possible to recycle them. The experts at Fraunhofer UMSICHT wondered: Are bioplastics compatible with recycling? Their answers can be found in the new position paper, “Recycling Bioplastics.”

Recycle it right – but how? Bioplastics in the materials cycle.

Recycle it right – but how? Bioplastics in the materials cycle.

Soon more food packaging, for instance for fruit and vegetables, could be made from more sustainable plastics. The new German packaging law takes effect on January 1, 2019. This law creates incentives for using products made from recyclable plastics and renewable raw materials in packaging. This could increase the share of bioplastics in the overall plastics market, which to date is just 0.6 percent. Most of this is used in packaging; other application areas are consumer goods, agriculture, textiles and electronics.

Bioplastics are biobased, biodegradable, or both. Thus the material seems to be an ideal candidate to make our packaging more sustainable. However, the only way to maximize bioplastics’ contribution to this development is to ensure that they are part of the reusable material cycle.

In a new position paper, “Recycling Bioplastics,” experts from Fraunhofer UMSICHT took a closer look at the material group of bioplastics and wondered: Are bioplastics compatible with recycling?

The Position of Fraunhofer UMSICHT

The researchers at Fraunhofer UMSICHT establish that bioplastics can fundamentally be identified and sorted like conventional plastics. If bioplastics are used more frequently in the future, for instance in packaging, this will require targeted adjustments to the waste management system, among other things. This produces a few different recommendations:

  1. Products and materials must be designed to remain in circulation after they are used. That includes being able to cleanly separate all of the components in order to facilitate recycling (e.g. lids from yogurt cups).
  2. Deposit programs, e.g. for PET bottles, achieve high cleanliness and recycling rates. Deposit programs for biobased plastics can also make disposal easier for consumers.
  3. Sorting trials should be performed with products made from bioplastics. This will help optimize sorting plants and software-controlled plastic identification systems in the event that larger quantities of bioplastics end up in the sorting system in the future.
  4. Labeling of recycled products (e.g. for the recycled percentage and quality) would be desirable in order to allow consumers to adjust their buying behavior.

Solutions for optimal recycling of bioplastics

Are bioplastics recyclable? Fraunhofer UMSICHT’s answer to this question is fundamentally “yes.” However, solutions still need to be developed and established that are technically, economically, and ecologically reasonable. This is the only way to appropriately increase the share of sustainable plastics in our value chain. The responsible parties are: material developers and designers; manufacturers of plastic products; households, for sorting; logistics and transport systems; and recycling companies.

All of the facts and recommendations can be read in the “Recycling Bioplastics” (PDF) position paper and/or on the Fraunhofer UMSICHT homepage.

About the series

In our series “Fraunhofer UMSICHT takes a position,” we address issues that are currently occupying society, scientists, and business. In this way, in addition to our research activities, we hope to contribute an objective voice to emotional debates and determine whether and where we can identify and make contributions to solving societal challenges.

We develop our position papers in collaboration with the employees of Fraunhofer UMSICHT.

Thus each position paper always represents an opinion-forming process at the institute – in this case by the Microplastics working group, which was supported by the Sustainability group. When it comes to controversial topics, the employees also often represent the diversity of opinions within our society. If we do not reach a uniform position, our differing opinions are described openly.

Source: Fraunhofer UMSICHT, press release, 2018-09-10.

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