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Bioplastics may pose serious threat to traditional recycling

Sweden – Our modern world is hallmarked by the popularity of plastics. And with the global trend towards ‘green’ living, there is one material predicted to conquer the world: bioplastics. However, this promising material, used in an array of medical as well as industrial applications, should be given a cautious welcome, according to experts in Sweden. ‘Their total environmental impact can be great and traditional recycling is threatened,’ they say.

In only a matter of a few years, bioplastics have achieved widespread use in Sweden. And according to a report recently published by Ceresana Research, this growth will continue at an amazing rate: the market share of non-biodegradable bioplastics is expected to increase to nearly 50% within a seven-year period. ‘But all success aside, bioplastics aren’t as environment¬ally friendly as the name implies,’ warns Christer Forsgren, Head of Technology and Environmental Science at Stena Metall. ‘Even though the raw material is bio-based, a great deal of energy is still required to produce, transport and convert both ordinary plastics and bioplastics.’

Such concerns are further fuelled by the fact that polylactic acids (PLAs), one of the most common forms of bioplastics, are created using a process involving many different chemicals. ‘Bioplastics often have to be stabilised as well in order to withstand heat and humidity so they may be used in many applications,’ adds Tord Svedberg, President and CEO of the IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute. ‘This process means, however, that the material won’t break down for a relatively long period of time. In nature, it could take up to several years.’

Apart from an increased need for new raw material in the long term to support the production of non-biodegradable plastics, bioplastics are also reputed to have a significant negative effect on traditional recycling. ‘Plastic recycling requires separating different types of plastics by machine,’ explains Mr Svedberg. ‘No matter how good the equipment is, there will always be a small percentage of material that is incorrectly sorted. Therefore, bioplastics represent a threat to the viable recycling of conventional plastics.’

Mr Forsgren adds: ‘To avoid sabotaging the future of plastics recycling and increasing our dependency on new raw material, we need a two-part strategy where as much conventional plastic as possible is recycled at the same time that the introduction and use of bioplastics is regulated.’ Bioplastics should be used only in applications where the benefits are obvious and where the risk is minimal that they will be mixed with plastics that can be recycled, he argues.

Both men are convinced quick action by the government is vital; they propose the launch as soon as possible of a thorough investigation into the bioplastic industry and the drafting of necessary guidelines on the use of bioplastics.
 

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