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Bioplastics a sustainable alternative recommended by the United Nations

22 February 2022

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To support the delivery of SDG12 – responsible consumption and production; the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) published last year the report “Assessment of agricultural plastics and their sustainability – A call for action. The report recommends the replacement of non-biodegradable, conventional polymers with biodegradable, bio-based polymers.

Estimating that about 12,5 million tons of plastic products are used yearly in agriculture, the report indicates that soil is the main receptor of plastic agricultural products, both during use and at the end of life - with films accounting for between 40 and 50 percent of this total. The report identifies alternatives and interventions to improve the circularity and sound management of agricultural plastics based on the 6R model: Refuse, Redesign, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Recover.

François de Bie, Chairman of European Bioplastics (EUBP) and Senior Marketing and Supply Chain Director at TotalEnergies Corbion, states: “Bio-based and soil-biodegradable mulch films help both in reducing dependence on fossil carbon sources, by using renewable carbon instead, and by playing a valuable role in reducing residual plastic pollution in soil, which can significantly impact agricultural productivity”.

The FAO study focuses on agricultural plastic products used in a range of different value chains. A qualitative risk assessment, which accompanies the study, analyses 13 specific agricultural products. “Significantly, for six out of 13 assessed products, biodegradable, bio-based plastics are recommended as preferable substitutes for conventional plastic material”, says de Bie. The list of recommended products includes mulch films, fishing gear, polymer coated fertilizers, tree guards and shelters, plant support twines, and pesticide impregnated fruit protection bags.

Mulch films represent the second largest share of plastic films used in agriculture. “These films, made from soil-biodegradable plastics, provide significant benefits where retrieval, recycling, and reuse of conventional plastics pose significant problems. They are specifically designed to biodegrade effectively in situ and can therefore be incorporated into the soil post-harvest”, explains François de Bie. In contrast, especially thin, non-biodegradable mulch films display an insufficient collection, management, and retrieval, which can lead to a significant level of plastic pollution in the fields in which they are used. Even where conventional mulch films are removed from the field, they are often heavily contaminated with soils and plant residues, which inhibits the recycling process.

The FAO report also emphasises that while over 90 percent of agriculture activities take place on land, scientific research of the impact of plastics has been falling mostly on aquatic environments. It is important to close this research gap states the report. As for the 37,3 million tons of plastic used in food packaging, biopolymers, according to FAO, may ease the organic recycling process.

FAO. 2021. Assessment of agricultural plastics and their sustainability – A call for action. Rome.