12 October 2017

Bioplastics: use and misuse

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The prefix “bio” for plastics doesn’t mean that they are all easily degradable. Confusion over words often means people don’t recycle their waste properly

When dealing with bioplastics, definitions like “biobased”, “biodegradable” and “compostable” can generate confusion among consumers: this affects the way these materials are dealt with after use, resulting in a problematic waste management process.

Biobased plastics are merely derived from renewable sources, and not all are biodegradable. Another distinction is between biodegradable and compostable.

According to the European Standard EN 13432 (“Requirements for packaging recoverable through composting and biodegradation – Test scheme and evaluation criteria for the final acceptance of packaging”) a bag is compostable if it is biodegradable (at least 90 per cent of its materials have been broken by biological action within six months) and the disintegration process takes place in 3 months. Therefore, only compostable bags can be used to collect organic waste.

The problem of plastics wrongly thrown into the green bin is so serious that a big waste-recycling company in the Netherlands, Attero, has called for a stop in bioplastics production until the confusion among citizens is dispelled. Although this issue has been raised in this country earlier than in other nations, it is of global interest.

In Italy the phenomenon of illegal biobags made with non-degradable materials, has worsened the scenario. The national environmental organisation Legambiente has estimated that half of the bags in circulation don’t comply with the law and launched the campaign “Un sacco giusto” (“A fair bag”, in Italian) to urge citizens to denounce irregular products. Legambiente advises people on how to recognise the illegal bags: for example, those that show the normative reference UNI EN ISO 14855 instead of the European standard EN 13432. According to the organisation, the legal supply chain lost 160 million euros to this clandestine market.

The sector also deals with complaints about the tax burden. The criteria of the national CONAI environmental contribution have caused protests by producers of disposable products such as biobased cutlery and cups. Due to some “legal loopholes”, they feel they make full tax contributions and miss out on incentives aimed at promoting sustainable recycling processes.

However, expert Mario Malinconico, from the Institute of Polymer Chemistry and Technology (ICTP-CNR) in Rome, thinks it is only a matter of time. “Given an open and free market dynamics, the political pressures for a regulatory update are increasing day-by-day”, he tells youris.com.

In 2016 bioplastics production worldwide amounted to 4.2 million tonnes and, according to forecasts, the trend is steadily increasing. Over the next few years, demand in bioplastics will grow to 6.1 million tonnes by 2021. And policy-makers and citizens should be ready to recycle these materials properly and preserve the environment.

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