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"Organic" plastic materials

Due to the growing environmental pollution caused by plastics and the resulting ever-increasing impact on the environment, so-called "organic" plastics have recently been gaining in importance as a supposedly environmentally friendly alternative to conventional types of plastic. "Organic" plastics can be derived from renewable raw materials or be compostable, or even both. Particularly in view of global societal challenges such as climate change and the finite nature of fossil resources, the development towards a bio-based economy is receiving more and more attention from policymakers and researchers.

In a recent study on the assessment of "organic" plastics by the general public and consumers in Germany, Scherer et al. (2020) showed that consumers have a very high intention to prefer products made from "organic" plastics in their purchasing decisions.

 

However, the term “organic” plastics is not uniformly defined. It is problematic that the word "organic" suggests a supposed environmental friendliness, which is not necessarily true in every case (WWF Germany 2021).

The term "organic" plastic is used for a wide range of different polymers and can indicate production from renewable raw materials or potential biodegradability, or both.

Zimmermann et al. (2020) recently showed that 80 percent of biobased and biodegradable products (e.g. drinking bottles, chocolate packaging, etc.) contained more than 1000 substances, some of which showed toxic effects in cell cultures; plant-based products made from cellulose and starch would contain the most chemicals.

 

Biodegradable, biobased or both?

The property biodegradable describes that a material can be converted into natural substances (e.g. water, carbon dioxide, compost) by microorganisms present in the environment without the need for additional chemical additives.

 

The term biobased describes that a material has been obtained on the basis of biomass or renewable raw materials (e.g. plant substances, such as sugar, starch, vegetable oils or cellulose).

 

According to Fraunhofer UMSICHT (2022), four groups of bioplastics can be derived according to the above criteria:

 

  1. Non-biodegradable plastics from fossil raw materials

  2. Non-biodegradable plastics from renewable raw materials

  3. Biodegradable plastics from fossil raw materials

  4. Biodegradable plastics from renewable raw materials

 

Biodegradability of plastics and bioplastics

In general, not all plastics made from renewable raw materials are biodegradable, and different degradation times must also be taken into account. Some plastics made from petrochemical (fossil) raw materials, on the other hand, can be biodegraded. Table 1 provides an overview of examples of different types of plastics and bioplastics together with their biodegradability.

Table 1: Plastic types with examples

Tabelle Bio-Kunststoffe ENG.png

fossil-based: petrochemical raw materials

Source: Fraunhofer UMSICHT (2022)

Current discourses on bioplastics

 

Like conventional plastics, three quarters of all the products studied contained harmful additives, such as substances that have a toxic effect on cells or cause hormone-like effects. The above-mentioned group of authors emphasizes the need for further studies to be carried out in the course of risk research on plastics and their alternatives. It is urgently advised that full transparency on all ingredients of any product is mandatorily available so that health risks can be excluded. Zimmermann et al. (2019, 2020) found only low inherent toxicity in about a quarter of the samples. This selection could lead the way for the future development of a new generation of low-toxicity and environmentally friendly plastics.

 

 

In most industrial composting facilities, the decomposition times for biodegradable plastics are too short, so biodegradable products do not decompose sufficiently despite appropriate certification.

 

They have to be sorted out at great expense and are finally incinerated.

  • Applicable standards that certify degradability are criticized because, among other things, they do not guarantee complete degradation and also do not take into account the degradability of the numerous additives, so-called additives which determine the property of the plastic.

  • The question arises as to whether consumers are basically informed enough to correctly weigh up or decide how "organic" plastics are to be adequately disposed of. It is very likely that some of the non-degradable or poorly degradable "organic" plastics are disposed of via waste, especially compost.

  • It is suggested to consumers that plastic production can continue, as plastic continues to be used for many single-use products (business as usual) instead of systematically switching to unpackaged and reusable as the standard.

  • As with conventional plastics, the production of "organic" plastics is energy-intensive and generates greenhouse gases. It is therefore desirable to significantly reduce the production and use of all plastics in line with the circular economy (reduce-reuse-recycle).

  • Biodegradable plastics are also not conducive to a circular economy, as they remove a renewable raw material that has been produced at great expense from the cycle. Only the longest possible use - i.e. remaining in the cycle - is sustainable and conserves resources.

  • If disposable packaging cannot be dispensed with, for example for hygienic reasons, packaging made from recycled plastics is recommended instead of packaging made from renewable raw materials.

 

Conclusion

On March 2nd 2022 193 member states at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) agreed that the new plastic inputs into the environment should be phased out completely, likely by 2030.

 

Such a new global agreement should encompass the entire life cycle of plastic, including raw material extraction, production, transport, use, disposal and remediation.

 

It is feared that "organic" plastics will receive increasing attention in the near future, especially in the medical sector, without correspondingly adequate labeling and widespread education about these innovative types of plastics. "Organic" plastics, especially bio-based and biodegradable "organic" plastics, may provide an alternative to conventional plastics, but the use of these types of plastics in their current form is not likely to be the way out of the plastics crisis.

© Dr. rer. nat. Cara Symanzik, Dr. med. Dipl. Biol. Susanne Saha, Janine Korduan (BUND e.V.) 06/2022

You can find more information on this topic here:

 

Literature

Behnsen H, Endres H-J (2020): Biokunststoffe – Hintergründe. In: Endres H-J, Mudersbach M, Behnsen H, Spierling S (Hrsg.): Biokunststoffe unter dem Blickwinkel der Nachhaltigkeit und Kommunikation: Status quo, Möglichkeiten und Herausforderungen. Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden: 7-16.

Fraunhofer UMSICHT (2022): Biokunststoffe. Verfügbar unter: https://www.umsicht.fraunhofer.de/de/ueber-fraunhofer-umsicht/nachhaltigkeit/nationale-informationsstelle-nachhaltige-kunststoffe/polymere-kunststoff/biokunststoffe.html#1 [letzter Zugriff: 10.02.2022].

Kržan A (2012): Biodegradable polymers and plastics. Verfügbar unter: https://icmpp.ro/sustainableplastics/files/Biodegradable_plastics_and_polymers.pdf [letzter Zugriff: 17.02.2022].

 

Patermann C, Aguilar A (2018): The origins of the bioeconomy in the European Union. New biotechnology, 40: 20-24.

Scherer C, Klein F, Emberger-Klein A, Menrad K (2020): Einschätzung von Biokunststoffen in der Bevölkerung und bei KäuferInnen in Deutschland. In: Endres H-J, Mudersbach M, Behnsen H, Spierling S (Hrsg.): Biokunststoffe unter dem Blickwinkel der Nachhaltigkeit und Kommunikation: Status quo, Möglichkeiten und Herausforderungen. Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden: 159-181.

 

Spangenberg J, Kuhlmann W (2020): F&E-Vorhaben „Bioökonomie im Lichte der Nachhaltigkeit und der Umsetzung der SDGs“ (FKZ 3520890900). Verfügbar unter: https://www.bund.net/fileadmin/user_upload_bund/publikationen/ressourcen_und_technik/ressourcen_technik_biooekonomie_projekt_studie_spangenberg.pdf [letzter Zugriff: 17.02.2022].

WWF Deutschland (2021): Bioplastik. Verfügbar unter: https://www.wwf.de/themen-projekte/landwirtschaft/bioenergie/bioplastik [letzter Zugriff: 17.02.2022].

Zimmermann L, Dombrowski A, Völker C, Wagner M (2020): Are bioplastics and plant-based materials safer than conventional plastics? In vitro toxicity and chemical composition. Environment International, 145: 106066.

 

Zimmermann L, Dierkes G, Ternes TA, Völker C, Wagner M (2019): Benchmarking the in vitro toxicity and chemical composition of plastic consumer products. Environ. Sci. Technol. 53 (2019) 11467-11477. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.9b02293

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