Plastic… or plastics?

According to the REACH regulations (Article 3(5) Regulation 1907/2006), plastics are polymers that include various additives making it possible to obtain materials that can be cast, shaped, generally under heat and pressure, in order to obtain market-ready final articles. Natural, non-chemically-transformed polymers, polymer paints, inks, and adhesives are excluded from this definition. However, all so-called “bio-sourced”[1] and/or “biodegradable” [2] materials are included in this definition and regarded as plastics in the same way as all the others, often referred to as “conventional plastics”.

Yet the term “plastics” covers a large group of materials with individual characteristics very different from each other.[3] If we draw the analogy with mammals, it will be acknowledged that we cannot speak of mammal in the singular, but in the plural, as this category includes species as different as mice, whales, dogs, and humans.

This very broad definition does not allow differentiation of the different materials according to certain of their characteristics – such as, in particular their ability to be biodegraded – i.e. to serve as a source of nutritional carbon for the micro-fauna (flora) in the environment – to a faster or slower extent in natural environments such as composts (produced at high or low temperature), growing soils, or sewage treatment, river, or sea waters.

 

Environmental observation

Currently-used conventional plastics such as PE, PP, PET, PS, PVC, etc.[4] have such qualities in use and such advantageous value for money that their development has literally exploded over the last 100 years. Due to their great durability, they have accumulated, to the point that they are now found in every layer and every compartment of the world. Their extreme resistance to biodegradation (estimated at between several hundred and several thousand years) does not however prevent them from being physically degraded (by oxidation, UV, erosion, etc.); in this way, they are broken up into micro- and nano-particles able to be rapidly spread very widely in our environment, but also in all living organisms… and hence also in humans. Current levels of pollution in the seas, rivers, soils, and air by these macro-, micro-, and nano-plastics are so high that urgent measures must be taken to tackle what constitutes an unprecedented threat to the survival of humankind

 

What can be done?

On Wednesday 27 March 2019, the European Parliament approved the draft Directive validated by the Member States last January. This vote validates the prohibition of certain single-use plastic articles (disposable plates and cutlery, straws, cotton buds, balloon sticks, oxo-degradable plastics[5], expanded polystyrene food containers and cups) from 2021, which will very probably be extended in 2027 to all plastics, under the meaning of the REACH definition, with no distinction, and hence de facto including biodegradable and/or bio-sourced plastics, irrespective of their means of biodegradation (compost, soil, river or sea water).

The solution presently being promoted is to recycle plastic waste. Mechanical recycling is certainly one option that may be envisaged – but it cannot be the only one, as no plastic can be recycled several times without its properties being considerably degraded, which soon makes it unusable; it will then end its life as landfill or in an incinerator, with or without energy recovery. This technological limitation inherent in the very nature of plastics, combined with the fact that recycling implies major constraints in terms of collection logistics and significant energy consumption, demonstrates that plastic recycling cannot be a lasting, effective solution for managing the end of life for all used plastics. Moreover, even if an efficient, incentive-based (e.g. a deposit) system for collecting and managing the waste is put in place, this option is not going to prevent part of this plastic from finding its way into the natural environment.

 

One credible initiative

Hence other solutions must co-exist with recycling; this is the case with the new biodegradable plastic materials (often incorrectly referred to as bioplastics[6]), which have reached a stage or manufacturing maturity in Europe after over 30 years of research and development, several tens of billions invested in the industry, and putting in place worldwide-recognized relevant standards. While other countries around the world (China, India, etc.) are working to catch up, Europe is now capable of offering a credible, responsible alternative to the conventional plastic materials whose catastrophic effects on the environment are now proven. Contrary to one particularly tenacious received idea, these new biodegradable “plastic” materials (whether bio-sourced or not) are not merely a gimmick for people campaigning for environmental lost causes, but on the contrary represent a real alternative to the conventional plastics that have invaded our lives and polluted the planet for centuries to come. These materials can in fact be completely digested by the environment, with no residual impact on the natural world, unlike conventional plastics (bio-sourced or not). Not to mention the disastrous “oxo-degradable” plastics, with which biodegradable plastics are often confused, whether through public ignorance or intentionally by the opponents of true biodegradable plastics. It should be noted that these “oxo-degradable” plastics have been banned in France since 2015 (except for agricultural mulch films) and are at last being banned across Europe. These have nothing in common with the bioplastics under discussion here.

 

No to the prohibition of single-use products for bioplastics

Yet, through a lack of understanding by the political decision-makers and/or because of various pressures, the bioplastics sector is today not only being held back in its development, but is now threatened by texts recently adopted at national and European level, which provide for the indiscriminate prohibition of single-use products. Thus the legislators are today condemning the whole sector for the sake of an illusion that banning straws, cups, and other disposable plastic articles is miraculously going to solve the problem of pollution and waste management. At least in the minds of the public, who seem to have to be content with believing what they are told without seeking to find out what the real situation is.

 

A clear weakening, and perhaps the death warrant, for a whole sector, for its research and its jobs

After having emphasized how relevant it is, these same representatives are now supporting the weakening, or indeed signing the death warrant for the sector, its research, and its jobs, by adopting a directive hastily and with no real discrimination, due to the highly emotionally charged climate around pollution by “plastic”.

At a time when it has reached the stage of developing mass-production in Europe, and other countries are working to catch up (China, India, etc.), this whole sector risks being condemned by the legislators for the sake of an illusion that banning straws, plates, and other disposable plastic articles is miraculously going to solve the problem of pollution, recycling, single use, and plastic waste management. Certainly, the intention to respond to the very real problem of plastic pollution, particularly in the marine environment, is commendable – but it seems clear that the haste with which the new legislation is being put in place is counterproductive. The example of supermarket carriers shows that banning “plastics” for manufacturing certain products does not put a stop to a whole way of consuming: the so-called “re-usable” carrier bags that are three to four times thicker than before, but which most often remain single use because of their low volume. By prohibiting any alternative in biodegradable, industrially- or home-compostable plastic – unlike the bags used for fruit and vegetables – the legislators have thereby caused an increase in the amount of conventional plastic consumed, despite the reduction in the number of carriers. Thus as far as the carrier bags are concerned, the measure has been counterproductive.

By prohibiting single-use plastic products from 2021, irrespective of the material they are made of, the European legislators are demonstrating both a lack of discernment and inconsistency in their own decisions. The development of these new plastic materials, which includes the dual issues of independence from fossil materials and the question of their end of life, has in fact been supported politically and financially for several years by the political representatives. Now, after having emphasized their relevance, these same representatives are today signing the death warrant for this sector, its research, and it jobs by adopting this Directive hastily. Yet the jobs this sector has already created, and that it ought to continue to create in Europe if it is allowed to live, cannot be relocated abroad, unlike those in the conventional plastics sector, the vast majority of which are based in Asia.

 

Innovating to make biodegradable materials even more efficient and examining their relevance in single-use products

The case against these new so-called “biodegradable” materials under the meaning of current international standards) is essentially associated with their cost, which is often higher than for conventional plastics. This cost is linked to the dual requirement they have to fulfil, in terms of strength in use and speed of biodegradation in the natural environment. While many of these materials only take a few months to be biodegraded, others are going to need longer, sometimes up to three to five years, depending on the environment involved. It should be noted that these break-down times exist in Nature, where some plant elements (certain tree leaves and branches) take several years to break down. This is, however, infinitely shorter than the hundreds of years taken by conventional plastics like PE, PET, or PVC. Even though they are still in their infancy and have room for further refinement, it cannot be denied that biodegradable plastics constitute a considerable advance for the environment, as they do not, and are never going to, contribute to this massive plastic pollution that is going to last for several hundred years which has invaded the Earth and which the populations do not accept and will no longer tolerate, and rightly so.

 

The question of recycling concept and methods is central

For years, waste management has only really considered plastic material recycling. Biodegradable plastics, however, can join the organic waste chain (30–40% of our waste), like kitchen biowaste, whose natural destiny is to be returned to the soil in the form of compost, then humus, making it possible to regenerate soils and maintain their agronomic qualities. These new plastic materials thus offer a logical, responsible end of life for food packaging soiled with organic materials that cannot be mechanically recycled for technical and economic reasons. In this way, even though these materials are converted into water and CO2 when they are composted, they offer the great advantage of not ending their lives going to pollute the seas for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Each time sorting for organic waste has been put in place, an improvement in the performance of the recycling of all the other recyclable waste (paper, cardboard, glass, etc.) has been observed. Thus the possibility of sorting soiled biodegradable plastics with organic waste would be a means of further improving waste sorting.

Certain plastics qualified as compostable under the meaning of the current standards can be perfectly well recognized on the sorting lines and could perfectly well be separated so as to be sent to a composting area. This is not the case, for lack of the political will to set up composting chains: so they are separated out and sent for incineration or landfill. Moreover, they have to pay not only the packaging levy, but a double penalty, as the levy is doubled on the grounds that these products will “hinder” sorting!

We find ourselves today in a short-termist policy, aimed at prolonging the practice of mechanical recycling, which currently concerns only 25% of our plastics and as a consequence has “nipped in the bud” the biodegradable plastics sector, which in the long term offers major environmental advantages.

 

Organic recovery: the key to the problem

As already included in the Waste Directive and Law, Europe therefore has an imperative duty to expand (from 2023) this organic recovery sector, in order to respond to its own new requirement for sorting and recovering biowaste. By sacrificing biodegradable plastics, it would be losing out on a major asset to accompany and facilitate sorting and recovering organic waste, while limiting landfill and incineration for the conventional plastics that will not be recycled.

A great many local authorities in Europe are already recognizing the interest of these new materials that are biodegradable by composting in the development of the collection and recovery of biowaste (Lorient, Libourne, Grenoble, Paris, Geneva, Milan are just a few examples among many more)

Certainly, we must reduce our consumption of virgin plastic material of fossil origin; but we must also give ourselves the means to effectively manage the end of life of these products, which remain necessary for a great many applications, including those relating to preserving food.

We already know that plastic recycling will not solve everything and that we will have to rely on the complementarity of the different ways of managing the various types of waste, in particular with the development of organic waste recycling and recovery. There already exists a responsible sector supporting a relocated economic model for these new plastics that are biodegradable by composting, whether at high or low temperature, in which larger groups and small and medium businesses have made a commitment across the whole of Europe.

The sector for biodegradable plastics under the meaning of current international standards is not some enticing concept for the future: it exists and is expanding. However, it will only be able to continue and contribute solidly to economic development if it becomes accepted to recognize its specific advantages in its various applications connected with recycling organic waste and the biodegradable nature of these materials.

 

Combating plastic pollution:

All the methods are good – but none of them alone makes it possible to solve this huge problem of plastic pollution.

– Must we limit the use of plastics in favour of materials regarded as less or non-polluting: the answer is yes

– Must we recycle: the answer is yes

– Must we incinerate (and if possible recover the energy released): the answer is yes

– Must we make use of materials that are rapidly-biodegradable under the meaning of current European or international standards: the answer is yes

– Must we continue and even step-up research to allow production of plastics with characteristics that are less and less polluting, irrespective of the type of end of life: the answer is yes

 

But above all, let us not lose out on the innovations we have already developed.

 

This is why we are urging our decision-makers to:

 

Encourage the development of new bio-sourced plastics that are biodegradable and compostable, under the meaning of current European and international standards, and to take these into account as possible alternatives to conventional “plastic”. This, in order to have available alternatives that are controlled and certified and to not leave the door open to solutions developed outside Europe that may be less environmentally friendly and/or produced with no real controls.

In parallel, allow research to be continued and stepped-up in order to maintain the European lead in this field. This, for production of less and less polluting materials, appropriate for the constraints in use, and including right from the design stage the most suitable end of life according to their applications and intended use.

In order to respond to the environmental challenges we are facing, we must innovate and develop new models. Do not let us kill off that which our most committed scientists and manufacturers have already developed in a real environmental approach and awareness of the challenges facing us.

 

Signatories

 

Architecte DPLG Arthur Mamou-Mami

DG Christophe Doukhy e Boissoudy (Novamont France)

Dr Benjamin Saulnier (PolyBioAid)

Dr Florian Monlau (APESA)

Dr François Touchaleaume (PolyBioAid)

Dr Guillaume Lebouteiller (Natureplast)

Dr Laurent Belard (Biopolynov)

Dr Mélanie Salomez (IATE)

Dr Morgan Deroiné (Compositic)

Dr Prof Stéphane Bruzaud (IRDL-UBS)

Dr Prof Yves Grohens (Compositic-UBS)

Dr Prof. Laurent Lebrun (Univ. Rouen)

Dr Prof. Véronique Ducruet (retraitée de la recherche agronomique))

Dr Prof.Emmanuelle Gastaldi (Univ. Montpellier)

Dr Prof.Sandra Domenek (AgroParisTech)

Dr Thomas Lefèvre (Natureplast)

Ing Benoit de Guillebon ( directeur de l’APESA)

Ing Pierre Feuilloley (Fondateur de COBIO)

Ing Vincent Pluquet (Végéplast)

Ing. Blandine Lagain (Breizpack)

Ing. Dalyal Copin (IRMA)

Ing. Jacques Fauchoux (Thermoformage Industries)

Ing. Victor Guillot (R&D Thimonnier SA)

Ing. Thierry Varlet (Breizpack)

Président Guy César (SerpBio et de PolyBioAid)

 

[1] “Biosourced is understood to mean all plastics, whether or not they are biodegradable, provided their basic chemistry comes from rapidly-renewable materials. This term is to be contrasted with plastics of fossil origin, i.e. whose basic chemistry comes from the cracking and distillation of crude oil.

[2] In this article, the term “biodegradable” refers to materials that meet one or more international and/or European specification standards

[3] The word “plasma” also comes from the same root. No obligatory connection between plastics, crude oil, fossil substances and/or non-biodegradability. But it turns out that the easiest way to design new polymers was to use oil which, through its organic origins, contains all the basic elements for creating new polymers

[4] PE = polyethylene, PP = polypropylene, PET = polyethylene terephthalate, PS = polystyrene, PVC = polyvinyl chloride

[5] Mainly polyethylenes, which break up by oxidation, but biodegrade only with great difficulty

[6] “Bioplastics” are defined by European Bioplastics. The term covers all “biodegradable” and/or “biosourced” plastics. This term leads to confusion, as it covers 3 types of plastic: non-biosourced biodegradables (e.g. PBAT), biosourced biodegradables (e.g. PHA), and biosourced non-biodegradables (e.g. biosourced PET)