Due to the unsustainability of intensive plastic production and the inability to adequately manage enormous amounts of plastic waste, plastics will be in the focus of decision makers at different levels in this century. It is necessary to find alternative solutions for the future of plastics, but also to redefine the existing and adopt new policies that will solve the given challenges.
Three measures for the future of plastics
As one of the potential solutions, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that the new “plastic economy” must address all current problems and that the future of plastics must be based on the solutions offered by the circular economy. The following graph illustrates the desirable future of plastic production and use.
As stated, this foundation states that the new “plastic economy” must be based on the principles of the circular economy. (2) In other words, it is necessary to create an economic framework for the plastics after use through increased recycling, reuse and controlled biodegradability. This means that it is necessary to increase the resource productivity of plastics through the improvement of economic preconditions and the quality of recycling. Also, reuse through direct cooperation of companies (Business-to-Business) can bring additional environmental and economic benefits. It is estimated that in the United States alone, asset sharing can save up to $ 100 billion and reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 33%. Finally, there is a huge space for compostable packaging, especially in the field of organic waste and food collection. It often happens that e.g. plastic bags contaminate with organic waste or food, which complicates recycling. Compostable bags solve this problem, and waste or food can end up together with this kind of plastic in composting plants or digesters for anaerobic digestion.
Secondly, it is necessary to stop the leakage of plastic into nature, especially into the oceans. In order to achieve that, coordinated action is necessary with the aim of improving the collection and treatment of plastic waste. It is also necessary to design products that will enable a greater economic logic of recycling and reuse, as stated in the paragraph above. Despite all the efforts, plastic would most likely continue to end up in the oceans. For that reason, it is necessary to make an effort to find a solution for materials and additives that are not harmful to the living world.
Finally, it is necessary to separate the production of plastics from the use of fossil fuels. Estimates suggest that even if the recycling rate increases from 14% to 55%, the need for new input (virgin plastics) can be expected to double by 2050. In such a case, it will be very difficult to separate production from the use of fossil fuels. However, if the role of renewable inputs increases, this separation can still be achieved. Namely, the use of carbon dioxide and methane in the production of plastics is already becoming cost-competitive compared to the production of fossil fuels. Also, bioplastics based on biomass is widely used, but with a small share at the moment.
Is bioplastics the solution?
Bioplastics is a plastic whose production is based on natural materials, i.e. biomass, such as corn, sugar beet, etc. Bioplastics covers a wide range of materials with different characteristics and possibilities of application. There are three basic types of bioplastics. In the first place, it is plastic that is partially or completely based on biomass, but which is not degradable. Another type of bioplastic involves a material that is both plant-based and degradable. Finally, the third type of bioplastic is based on fossil fuels, but it is degradable.
Biodegradability is a chemical process in which microorganisms convert material into water, carbon dioxide and compost. The biodegradability process depends on the purpose of the material and environmental conditions, such as location and temperature. However, as mentioned, plastics based on natural materials do not have to be degradable in any case, because this process depends on the chemical composition and not on the origin of the material. (3)
Benefits and challenges of using bioplastics
The positive aspects of the use of bioplastics are that fossil fuels do not have to be used in the production of this material, which leads to the elimination of greenhouse gases. However, there are other environmental concerns, such as the use of fertilizers and water in the production of plants used to produce raw materials for bioplastics. Also, the question arises as to how much land is needed to grow these plants and how much it negatively affects the nutritional needs of people. Finally, the degradability of bioplastics is very often misunderstood. The decomposition of “biodegradable” plastics requires a high temperature, which can be achieved mainly in industrial composting plants. In other words, plastic products will not decompose in the ocean or other ecosystems, because the ambient preconditions for decomposition are not met.
Based on all the above, it is concluded that great efforts will be needed in research and development of new innovative materials that provide environmental, economic and social benefits. Global cooperation is necessary and it is one of the main preconditions for success. Finally, the adoption of adequate policies for the transition to a circular economy will set the framework for the implementation of activities aimed at the ecological production of plastic materials and products and adequate management after use.
(1) Adaptation based on: World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, McKinsey & Company, The New Plastics Economy, Rethinking the future of plastics, 2016, pg. 31
(2) Ibid, pg. 31-34