BIOPLASTICS IN GENERAL
The term bioplastics can be confusing. This is because bioplastics are made from biomass but may have exactly the same properties as ordinary plastics. Sometimes these plastics are biodegradable, sometimes not.
Biobased products are products wholly or partly derived from biologically renewable materials such as plants, trees, animals, waste (defined as biomass).
Biodegradation is the breakdown of biobased matter by microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi and by environmental conditions. Biodegradability is the quality of a biodegradable substance. It is assessed by considering both the degree of decomposition of a substance and the time required to achieve this decomposition.
A product is said to be biodegradable if, under the action of living organisms outside its substance, it can decompose into various elements, with no damaging effect on the environment, e.g. carbon dioxide, water, and compost.
Plastics are very familiar products and have been used in many different applications for more than 80 years. As such, plastics are a vital asset for humanity, providing functionality that cannot be easily or economically replaced by other materials.
Unfortunately, the massive use of petroleum materials for their manufacture and poor waste management have led to a gigantic ecological crisis. Mankind therefore needs to find an alternative solution that gives us continued access to plastics but avoids these serious problems. Bioplastics, made from biological materials, represent an effective and positive way of retaining the huge advantages of conventional polymers but mitigating their disadvantages and weaknesses.
- Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions
- Saving fossil fuels
- Possibility of using a local resource
- Low impact on the environment
- Biodegradable (for some) offering an additional option for end-of-life management.
A label awarded in accordance with independent certification based on acknowledged standards guarantees that the product fulfils the criteria claimed. As bioplastics cannot be distinguished from conventional plastics by non-experts, reliable labeling helps consumers, recyclers, composters, and municipal authorities to identify these products. It also informs the consumer of particular additional qualities the material or product possesses. Another advantage provided by compostability labels is that they facilitate correct waste separation, collection, and recovery.
Today, there is a bioplastic alternative for every conventional plastic material and corresponding application. Bioplastics are moving into the mass market. It is a market characterized by a high growth rate and strong diversification for all existing applications and customer requirements.
Also, legal frameworks and new commitments in most countries provide incentives for the use of bioplastics around the world, stimulating the market.
These commitments are also followed by major brands including Danone, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Heinz, Unilever, Ford, Mercedes, Toyota and others that have already launched or integrated bioplastic products. With strong market players such as these leading the way, all manufacturers will soon follow this new trend.
PLA IN GENERAL
PLA is completely based on natural resources. Currently, all the PLA in the market is based on sugar coming from agricultural crops.
PLA made from renewable resources can be naturally recycled by biological processes, thus limiting the use of fossil fuels, and protecting the environment. Therefore, PLA is always made with sugar, but sugar can come from different sources. Currently, three sugar technologies exist and/or are in development.
1st Generation : Sugar comes from the usual feedstock plants such as Cassava, Corn, Sugar cane or Beets. In our case, RENEW® is produced from corn.
2nd Generation : Sugar comes from wood and organic waste such as bagasse, switch grass or straw. This technology is currently under industrial development and could be a good switch for all industries but should be mitigated in terms of available quantities and productivity, The 1st Generation principle is the most cost-effective technology. The 2nd Generation could be a good solution to valorize by-products but could not replace the 1st generation.
3rd Generation : New developments are currently underway in the lab to produce sugar from algae. Algae could be a breakthrough technology in the field of sugar production as they can reach a high productivity level from a small surface and with limited inputs. This 3rd generation could, in the future , replace the 1st generation.
“When it comes to using biomass, there is no competition between food or feed and bioplastics. The land currently needed to grow the feedstock for the production of bioplastics amounts to only about 0.02 percent of the global agricultural area – compared to 97 percent of the area that is used for the production of food and feed.
There is no well-founded argument against a responsible and monitored (i.e. sustainable) use of food crops for bioplastics. There is even evidence that the industrial and material use of biomass may in fact serve as a stabilizer for food prices, providing farmers with more secure markets and thereby leading to more sustainable production. Independent third-party certification schemes can help to take social, environmental and economic criteria into account and to ensure that bioplastics are a purely beneficial innovation.”
Also, bioplastics such as PLA use only sugar from plants such as wheat, corn, sugar cane, and sugar beet. The other valuable portion of the plant is usually used in Food/Feed and energy as follows :
In this diagram, we focus on wheat and corn-based sugars. In the first steps, the lignin which represents the non-edible part of the plant is valorized in cogeneration processes to produce green energy. The fat and proteins are currently valorized in the food and feed sectors. With the new trend for a healthy food and a hydrogen/electric-based car industry, the interest in sugar which was used to a large extent in those two sectors should decrease in the next decades. Nowadays, the main interest in plants such as corn or wheat will be the plant proteins and the fat which are directly used in the food/feed industries. By using the least valued portion of the plant, bioplastics such as PLA are offering a new opportunity for the agricultural sector to valorize 100% of its products.
Yes, PLA is a certified as a biodegradable material, but only in an industrial composter with specific environmental conditions. PLA can be qualified as industrially compostable (DIN EN 13432:2000-12).
With normal use, the product will not degrade. Only when it comes into contact with microorganisms does the degradation process begin. The temperature and the moisture content play a major role in this. The material is degradable under industrial conditions in 6 months. Under normal conditions, such as when buried in the ground, the degradation process takes several years, but not centuries like the current oil-based polymers.
If the end product is made of pure PLA or if the compounds used in its manufacture are considered to be “safe” for the environment, no environmental impact will be noted when it turns into compost.
The use of GM crops is not a technical requirement for the production of PLA. In our production, we decided to turn our raw material to a non-GM source as our microorganisms are also not modified. Futerro is thus offering a PLA made with non-GMO from the start to the end of the product.
As with conventional plastics, PLA needs to be recycled separately (by stream type). Available sorting technologies such as near infrared (NIR) work well on PLA and can be easily installed.
PLA can easily be recycled with conventional methods such as mechanical recycling or with Futerro’s patented LOOPLA® technology. Once sufficiently large volumes are sold, the implementation of separate recycling streams for PLA will become economically viable for recyclers. But if our customers plan to source their waste themselves, we can already help them with our recycling technology at our dedicated industrial plant in Belgium.
PLA IN APPLICATIONS
Yes, several solutions already exist on the market and others are in development to improve PLA’s properties. By selecting the right partner, you can, for example, improve its biodegradability, crystallinity, heat-resistance and permeability.
Futerro as a “Solution Provider” can help you to adapt your processes thanks to our experienced team, our in-depth market knowledge, and our current partnership with several compounders.
PLA is a well-known polyester. If you are looking for help in adapting your process parameters or improving our PLA through compounding, Futerro as a “Solution Provider” can monitor your project to help you during your ecological and sustainable transition.
Knowing that virgin PLA is considered to be biodegradable in an industrial composter or digester, products manufactured with PLA are also considered to be biodegradable.