Frequently Asked Questions
The word bio-plastic can be confusing. Bioplastics are either bio-degradable/compostable or derived from natural resources or can be both. The first bioplastics were derived from fossil (oil) resources. New generation bioplastics are resourced from renewable resources, like agricultural feedstock.
The use of agricultural products by mankind has a history of ages. Before the “fossil-age” man derived many products from nature, for clothing, building and food. There are no specific crops for bioplastics, nor are resources taken out the food chain for the production. There is sufficient unused arable land to grow an increasing demand for bioplastics.
- Is food being used to make bioplastics?
Not always. A lot of bioplastics are made of cellulose or waste streams (like sugarcane etc.). In the case of PLA, one of the most used Bioplastics corn is used. However the corn is not specially grown for the production of bioplastics. It is just one of the end products made from this corn
- Is farmland being used to produce packaging materials?
No. At the moment the use of farmland for the production of packaging materials is all old farm land which was already being used for products. There is no additional use of land. More info: FAQ_Agri_web.pdf
- Are forests being cut down for the production of bioplastics?
No. There was some discussion in the palm fibre industry but that was for biofuel not bioplastics.
- What are bioplastics?
They can be materials from (yearly) renewable recourses and/or compostable according to EN13432. There are a lot of developments in the industry. Also some developments do not qualify as bioplastics. They are called OXO-degradable. These are traditional plastics where some additives are put in so they disintegrate into microscopically small parts. This is not a bioplastic and is in fact dangerous because they get into the food chain.
Use of bioplastics
The use of bioplastic material is not reserved to applications where compostability is a valuable property. Especially for packaging the use of bioplastics can be fruitful due to short lifecycle of the packaging and its renewable content.
There are some countries where tax regulations promote the use of bioplastics, but apart from this, the surplus value is the renewable content and the compostability. By using renewable resources dependency on finite fossil resources (from instable/unfriendly regimes) is reduced. Compostability offers a good alternative to landfill in countries where it is facilitated.
In general bioplastics are more expensive than conventional plastics. The pricing of conventional plastics does not represent its environmental impact on the long term.
- Are the materials more expensive?
In general the materials are more expensive. However because the materials often are stronger there is less material needed and in that way the price difference is not so big anymore. In some countries (i.e. Germany, Holland) there is packaging tax advantage.
- Are bioplastics more environmentally friendly and/or sustainable?
Not necessarily, this depends on the material and the application, but in general one can say: bioplastics use no (or a lot less) oil and is already more sustainable in that way. Since most of the bioplastics are made from renewable recourses, they are more sustainable.
- Are bioplastics harder to work with?
No, by now most manufacturers and end users of bioplastics have seen that there is no difference in comparison to using traditional plastics.
More info: Packaging_eng.pdf
- Do bioplastics have a harmful effect on produce?
No, in fact in some cases there can be a longer shelf life by at least 2 days. For example the PLA packaging for Pepper and Vine tomatoes in PLA gives a shelf life of 2 extra days.
The end of life options for bioplastics are equal to the conventional plastics when it comes to incineration. In fact green energy can be produced. By having bioplastics incinerated, due to the certification, one can be sure that no harmful gases or waste streams are produced. When the plastics are composted, useful compost can be created. Anaerobic digestion is a useful step before composting, since biogas can be created.
When bioplastics end up in the regular waste stream, there is no harmful effect.
Bioplastics in a recycle stream can be easily sorted out with IR-scanning, which is a very common way to sort these streams.
Besides the incineration and composting, bioplastics can be recycled on their own. This is by far the most environmentally friendly option, since the CO2 is sequestrated. For the moment volumes need to increase, but some pilots are successfully started (Galactic)
- Can bioplastics be composted?
A lot of bioplastics are EN13432 certified and can be composted within the time frame that is set by the standard. However a lot of industrial composting facilities speed up the process, it can happen that the material is not completely composted.
- Is there a negative effect when bioplastics are incinerated?
No. There is no additional release of CO2 or any toxins. The material when burned in most cases also gives a higher energy recovery. More info: FactSheet_Energy_Recovery.pdf
- Do bioplastics disturb the recycling stream?
No. Most bioplastics are not recognised by plastic sorting machines and in that way will never get into the recycling stream. If there is significantly enough material in the market the recyclers will start to sort these out too and then they can be recycled. The reason people often think there is a negative effect are the OXO-degradables. These are recognized by the sorting machines as traditional plastic and do get into the recycling process. This means the additive is mixed with regular plastics and thus degrades the recycled product. This is also one of the reasons OXO-degradables are considered not to be a bioplastic.