BIOPOLYMERS AND INDUSTRY: DISPOSABLE PRODUCTS SEGMENT
As we have already indicated in other previous articles, the consumption of plastic is constantly increasing. In the last 50 years it has grown by 2000% and is estimated to double by 2034 (>720 million tonnes).
However, there has always been a shadow on this beautiful and positive trend, a lack of an effective control plan by the polymer producers and the entire value chain, for the correct management of the end-of-life of materials and products sold on the market, in particular those defined as “disposable” products. The lack of a lucid analysis of what plastics could generate in terms of environmental impact, if badly managed. It is now clear to everyone that a proper training/education for end users is missing.
Europe today has set precise conditions, increasingly restrictive over time and is doing a lot of work for the recycling of plastic materials. But not only. It could not refrain from doing so, given that our continent represents one of the areas of the world with a high consumption of polymers (>61 million tons/Y). The problem, unfortunately still today, does not consist so much in the quality of production, which has reached very high standards in the management of its industrial waste, but is about the disposal of finished products. There is still a too high dispersion of waste (plastic products) in the environment.
From the graph shown here it can be seen that the volumes of fossil plastics at European level have now been stable for some years, with a slight tendency to decrease (2018 on 2017) and this is a phenomenon that could continue in the coming years, precisely due to the changes requested by the European Community.
Today fossil plastics are under accusation and the focus is on bio, but if individual behavior downstream does not change, there will be no biodegradability that holds. The problem will remain.
Even compostable/biodegradable biobased plastics, today only 1% of the total world volume, in fact need a certain number of years before disintegrating (with very few exceptions for now) in the soil or in the water and certainly none of the producers want to strengthen this bad habit that has contributed to the fouling of earth and rivers.
Certainly bioplastics do not require hundreds of years to decompose as it is for fossil polymers which, even when reduced to smaller and smaller fragments, represent damage to all marine fauna, as well shown in the documentary Seaspiracy available on Netflix.
Concern is growing around the world about the impact on human health, represented by the accumulation of fossil microplastics in the body and the chemical interactions that they can generate within the human body.
Unfortunately, even today and despite the increase in the percentage of people who ask themselves questions on the subject of plastic pollution, we are repeating the same mistake of the past.
In fact, due to the pandemic, aids (masks and gloves) were delivered into the hands of citizens all over the world without the necessary instructions for their proper disposal and this will inevitably exacerbate the problem that Europe is trying to stem.
However, public opinion has begun to take an interest in the subject and to have a shared position on it, which we hope will increasingly expand the level of general awareness; in fact, from a recent survey carried out in Europe, 92% of citizens are in favor of reducing single-use plastics, 87% are concerned about the impact this has on the environment and 74% fear that there may be negative effects for your health. These numbers should make industry operators think.
For all these reasons, the European Commission in January 2018 launched the “Strategy for Plastics in the Circular Economy“ in which it presented its intentions aimed at reducing pollution due to single-use plastics, followed later by the SUPD (single-use plastics directive) of June 2019, released this month.
In our opinion, this beacon aimed at the disposable product category is a very strong signal.
It is not focused on a particular chemical composition (polymer chain), or on the quantity of polymers sold. It is a signal that affects all industrial sectors and focuses attention on the environmental impact of plastics also in terms of greenhouse gas production.
In particular the CO2e, generated by the production processes which, it must be remembered, are lower than those of the processing of traditional raw materials such as glass, metal or cement.
Plastic packaging, to which disposable products are ascribed, is by far the sector that consumes the most plastic in the world (>40% of the total).
In fact, the aforementioned EU directive states and takes its cue from the fact that most of the waste dispersed in the environment (cities, beaches, etc.) are disposable plastic products.
Analyzing the life cycle of these products, one immediately realizes how much their usage time is negligible if compared to the disposal time; for this reason the European Community has decided to undertake a dissuasive campaign, aimed at rethinking the entire production, distribution and disposal process of finished products.
Could it have been avoided? Yes, of course!!
However, now the Directive is there and we must confront it and, possibly, capitalize on it.
It is certainly a push to undertake a 360 ° path of innovation on these objects, their distribution and their use, in order to make the overall cycle longer and less impactful. The watchword, the slogan, of the legislation is no longer “disposable”, but rather: use and reuse.
What products are we talking about?
The Single Use Plastic Directive (SUPD) report focuses on ten plastic products for single use, most of which are widely used in the food and beverage retail trade, namely:
- Cups for take-away drinks (for example the cup dispensed from coffee machines)
- Food containers
- Containers for drinks (for example water bottles)
- Cutlery, plates and glasses (the classic disposable “mise en place” for picnics)
- Cotton swabs
- Cigarette butts
- Plastic bags
- Food bags (such as potato chips packets)
- Wet wipes
Let’s try to give a numerical dimension to the phenomenon, to make the problem more tangible, by analyzing the first four objects on the list.
1) Cups for take-away drinks, normally manufactured in expanded polystyrene (EPS) or through a mixture of cellulose on the outside and polyethylene on the inside. They weigh about 1.5 gr. and, in Germany alone, these products create 28,000 tons of garbage per year. Most importantly, only 15% of the total volume of the material is thrown into public waste bins. The European project plans to ban the use of EPS by July 2021 and to indicate on all glasses that inadequate disposal of plastic causes negative impacts on the environment.
2) Food containers are usually composed of polypropylene, polystyrene or PET, when they are entirely made of plastic. The paper variants, on the other hand, feature a polyethylene and aluminum film on one of the surfaces. Lately, solutions with biopolymers and biodegradable or compostable polymers have also taken hold. Again, much of the problem lies in the numbers: England, Germany, Italy and Spain are in fact among the 13 countries where most take-away food is consumed in the world. To make a comparison, in the United States (about 330,000,000 inhabitants) over 7.5 billion containers are used, while in England (about 66,000,000 inhabitants) the figure amounts to 1.8 billion; making a quick calculation on the inhabitants present in these two territories we immediately realize the disparity between the two countries. Also in this case, from July 2021 EPS (expanded polystyrene) will be prohibited, while from 2024 member states will have to adopt EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) programs that attribute full financial responsibility on the part of the subjects of the plastics value chain, to the payment of cleaning costs, waste management and, last but not least, awareness raising.
3) Bottles for beverages, such as those for water, see Italy as the main producer and consumer, with quantities that exceed all other individual states in Europe. Market indications say that 46 billion are consumed every year in Europe, of which 18 billion are generated by Italy.
These products are made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE (high density polyethylene). In addition to bottles, caps and plastic labels are also among the objects most found on beaches throughout Europe, numbers that are not surprising given the quantity of bottles produced. Also in this case, the EU has provided for the adoption of EPR programs for manufacturers and the introduction of the obligation to have, by 2024, lids or caps that remain attached to the bottle during use.
4) Finally we find the disposable cutlery and plates. From the report that led to the definition of the Disposable Plastics Directive (SUPD), these appear to be among the seven most commonly abandoned objects on European beaches and among the most lethal for animals such as turtles, seagulls and mammals. For these items the EU has banned the sale of any polymer from July 2021, so in the near future we will only see items made of bamboo or made of cardboard.
Note: Oxo-degradable materials are no longer allowed and PHAs are not considered natural plastics.
The “Break free from plastic” organization has been collecting, analyzing and classifying waste by quantity and brand for some time.
According to this logic, the more successful multinationals are in sales, the greater their responsibility in the pollution of the planet and the greater their commitment must be to reduce the impact of the plastic used in their packaging.
This situation is the result of that lack of attention that should have been there from the beginning, regarding the end of life of the products.
How do the various European states deal with the problem?
Each nation has therefore been given the arduous task of making the initiative stimulating both for producers, who must find other production methods or develop less complex products that facilitate their recycling and innovative methods of use / reuse, and for consumers, whose collaboration is essential for the success of the project and which must absolutely be involved so that they are willing to change their habits favorably. It is desirable that local governments also implement smart collection points, able to divide in advance the different plastics thrown into the waste container. Increase their number according to the needs/size of the neighborhoods and activate innovative strategies (not only based on taxes) to encourage virtuous collection.
Some examples of a national approach to the problem
Italy:with the European delegation law 2019-2020, Italy has implemented Directive 2019/904 on the reduction of the incidence of certain plastic products.
From the 3rd of July, fossil plastic dishes (PP or PS) will no longer be allowed and must be transformed into natural materials (paper, cellulose, wood). However, Italy has introduced a derogation from the directive allowing compostable plastics to be used for single-use tableware in Italy, thus offering a gradual transition to completely natural plastics, as the new materials are defined in the new directive. Notwithstanding the commitment to reduce single-use applications in favor of reusable ones.
It should be considered that Italy is the leading producer of disposable plastic items. In the “disposable” tableware sector alone (plates, glasses, cutlery, straws and mixers) there are at least thirty companies employing around 3,000 employees.
France: from the beginning of 2020 the use of disposable plastic products in the administration establishments was prohibited and from 2023 there will be an obligation to adopt reusable products. In addition, from 2022 every public building will have to be equipped with a source of drinking water connected to the network.
Germany: they are working on a law that will introduce the obligation for merchants to make reusable containers available from 2023.
Austria and Netherlands: are working to introduce a tax on single-use plastic products or, alternatively, forcing businesses to introduce a surcharge for these items (a bit like the mandatory tax on shopping bags in Italy).
As mentioned, to solve the problem, in addition to the support of nations, the contribution of companies is also needed, which must work to find innovative solutions in this regard. Among the ideas that are gradually coming to light, we point out:
- A study done at a Starbucks in London. The analysis included the application of discounts for customers who decide to use reusable cups and, on the contrary, a surcharge for those who continue to prefer disposable products. The study carried out showed an appreciation for the initiative by users and an increase in the use of reusable cups.
- The CupClub company, also in England, has created a series of glasses equipped with RFID sensors, so that they can be tracked within closed areas. The product is aimed primarily at airports, universities, concerts and festivals where, through these strategies, it is possible to offer reusable products to their customers without fear of their being dispersed into the environment.
- In Germany, a company called ReCup has taken off and supplies reusable polypropylene cups. The customer, paying a deposit of only € 1, receives his drink in one of these reusable containers which, once returned, to any commercial establishment in the network of stores that collaborate in this initiative, is washed and put back on the market.
- Following the same scheme, the ReCircle company has proposed a “rental” service of recyclable containers for the consumption of take-away food in Switzerland and Germany.
Both companies stress that the adoption of these services by chain stores leads to greater brand loyalty and an improvement in the customer experience through the use of more fashionable containers.
- The Berglandmilch company, the largest milk producer in Austria, has returned to deliver its products in 1L glass bottles, as was once done in Italy as well.
The search for the best solution has just started, but the emphasis created by the EU has set in motion the best intentions and the best creative minds of the various companies and the results will not be long in coming.
As we have pointed out several times, to solve this problem it is now necessary to start from the end. That is, imagine the solution starting from the end of life. What should/could the “end of life” of my product be? Not forgetting, however, the other important objective: the Carbon Footprint of the product. That is the CO2e load that the devised solution can generate.
The example of the Austrian company that is once again proposing glass bottles for milk is not in our opinion the best way for a favorable CFP. In addition to the weight in CO2e that the glass carries on board from its production, the weight in transport (kg / m3) is also added. In addition, bottle washing involves a large consumption of water.
This company choice obviously does not take into account the exponential progress that is being made in the recovery of plastic materials and their progressive bio-conversion.
Thanks to the rapid technological evolution that is taking place in the recycling sector, it will be possible to use more and more recycled plastics and in ever greater percentages. Biobased materials, both compostable and recyclable, will increasingly reduce the CO2e load (thanks to the green carbon content) while maintaining all, or most of, the technical properties necessary for the different applications, those characteristics typically offered by completely fossil polymers.
Certainly we are in a transition phase, for which producers of disposable and non-disposable items will have to revise their products as soon as possible in the direction of increasingly eco-sustainable solutions (raw materials and systems).
It is essential to reinvent the disposable segment, maintaining the values of practicality and hygiene (an important value in this historical moment) but making it more virtuous and less impacting ecologically.
But finding the most “eco-friendly” material will not be enough if integrated and complete application models are not proposed. It will be the new models to avoid any future more restrictive directives of the legislators. Creating and proposing them at the European Commission level is the task of the companies and associations operating in this sector.
Certainly the use of compostable or biodegradable materials for objects with a short life cycle is a great opportunity, as is the use of polymers and compounds based on recycled or biobased plastics, for longer-life and reusable objects.
The fact remains that all this will not allow a real breakthrough until there is a change of pace downstream of the chain, at the level of world consumers.