Towards a circular economy
While conventional plastics are known for resisting all manner of biological degradation, biodegradable bioplastics, such as those made from polylactic acid polymers (PLA) can be composted. At the same time, their chemical structures provide enough resilience and strength to be able to replace conventional plastics in many applications. The composting process of compostable bioplastics occurs in two steps, they are first disintegrated and fragmented by heat, humidity and fungi; and then the fragments are further broken down and fully biodegrade into CO2, water and biomass. Biodegradation is the process where these fragments are consumed by bacteria and fungi as a source of energy.
Throughout our communications, unless otherwise specified, the terms 'biobased' and 'compostable' or 'biodegradable' refer to EN16785-1 and EN13432 standards respectively. It is the responsibility of the article producer to ensure that claims on final products are substantiated by testing against the relevant standards. Check your locally available end-of-life infrastructure to ensure that legitimate end-of-life claims are made on the final product.
Despite the potential for PLA bioplastics to be recycled conventionally, there are a number of benefits that add tangible value for people and the environment.
Understanding the circular potential for biobased, compostable plastic such as PLA helps make better choices for sustainable bioplastic alternatives and environmental protection.
Climate change and in general environmental issues have become a priority for policy makers around the globe. The plastic sector is also subject of policies that answer the urge of better material recycling and overall increase plastic’s circularity. PLA is industrially compostable, offering a different, realistic and circular end-of-life solution.
Separate biowaste collection and reworking of biowaste is currently far from its potential. In the EU27+, current capture of food waste is just 16% of the theoretical potential, and that food waste is the most valuable source for creating compost. Absence of collection and treatment for biowaste means that they will end in landfills or incineration releasing greenhouse gases (BIC and ZWE 2020).
Organic waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Where fossil-based plastics cannot be economically recycled when contaminated with food residue, compostable bioplastics can be organically recycled alongside food waste. Hence, both methane emissions and food waste stream plastic contamination are significantly reduced. In the case of tea bags, coffee capsules, and food packaging, this represents an ideal synergy, helping more organic waste to be repurposed and less conventional plastic to end up in compost and soils.
Building a sustainable economy and reaching the climate neutrality targets, requires innovative materials and improvement in waste management. PLA, a biobased, recyclable, and versatile material offers an additional, sustainable, and efficient end-of-life option: composting.
Composting is crucial in achieving a sustainable future. With composting, the carbon captured from the atmosphere during the growth of the plants is brought back to the soil. Also, nutrients are brought back to soils, increasing their quality and health without using chemical fertilizers. Composting biowaste mitigates the carbon emissions, as landfilling biowaste emits higher amounts of Green House Gases (CO2, CH4) which contribute to global warming.
Compostable bioplastics offer an alternative to conventional (fossil-based, non-biodegradable) plastic items which are usually not recycled because of their organic waste content. For instance, teabags, coffee capsules and biowaste collection bags.
Certified compostable bioplastic packaging can be thrown in the biowaste bin together with its organic waste content avoiding landfilling and incineration, as well as reducing contamination of the biowaste stream with conventional plastics.
Compostable biobased plastics like PLA are poised to respond to numerous ecological challenges. From their low carbon footprint to the flexibility of their end-of-life, these plant-based materials represent a sustainable alternative to current petroleum-based, nonbiodegradable plastics in a wide range of applications.