π Industry
Bioplastics: a clean alternative?

Bioplastics won’t replace recycling

Interview Richard Robert, Journalist and Author
On February 2nd, 2021 |
4 mins reading time
Bioplastics won’t replace recycling
Olivier Jan
Olivier Jan
Central Europe sustainability lead partner at Deloitte
Erwan Harscoët
Erwan Harscoët
Director in sustainability practice at Deloitte
Key takeaways
  • Businesses are under pressure from consumers and stakeholders (NGOs, governments, etc.) to reduce environmental impact and limit greenhouse gas emissions.
  • To meet these demands requires analysis product life cycles (start and end) if companies wish to truly manage their environmental footprint.
  • Using bio-based materials can solve some of these problems, but the end-of-life phase for a product is still critical. As such, product biodegradability remains a major factor.
  • Optimal management of bioplastics requires a multi-sector approach and a good understanding of the challenges presented by the manufacturing industry, recycling channels and biodegradability.

Envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions have been on the rise along­side increas­ing­ly strong soci­etal demand for eco-friend­ly con­sumer goods. Even though they are respon­si­ble for pol­lut­ing oceans, emit­ting CO2, and fill­ing up land­fills, plas­tics are at the heart of this tran­si­tion; world­wide plas­tic pro­duc­tion is pro­ject­ed to con­tin­ue to rise by 3.2% annu­al­ly until 2027. 

We have seen steady growth of the recy­cling indus­try in devel­oped coun­tries over the years and per­for­mance is only get­ting bet­ter, too. In addi­tion, bio­plas­tics offer new, dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties. Although they cur­rent­ly rep­re­sent just 2% of the world mar­ket in terms of val­ue, this is quick­ly increas­ing. How­ev­er, these mate­ri­als are not with­out their own, unique challenges.

Com­pa­nies are there­fore ask­ing them­selves how best to tack­le these issues. Recy­cling, bio-based mate­ri­als, and biodegrad­able prod­ucts offer solu­tions. To decide on their approach and strat­e­gy, man­u­fac­tur­ers are think­ing about the prob­lem in three dimen­sions while con­sid­er­ing the side effects and the prof­itabil­i­ty of each. Olivi­er Jan and Erwan Harscoët, engi­neers and con­sul­tants at Deloitte, help com­pa­nies decide where to start.

A few years ago, envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns only seemed asso­ci­at­ed with ‘cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­i­ty’ and com­pa­nies were often labelled as green­wash­ing. Is that still the case?

Olivi­er Jan: The world has changed. Not only are reg­u­la­tions now stronger in the pack­ag­ing indus­try, but com­pa­nies’ license to oper­ate are at risk. Nowa­days, a busi­ness can col­lapse for social or envi­ron­men­tal rea­sons if con­sumers and stake­hold­ers believe its activ­i­ty is hav­ing haz­ardous con­se­quences on the plan­et or its pop­u­la­tions. The entire con­sumer goods sec­tor has been par­tic­u­lar­ly impact­ed. Deci­sion-mak­ers are pay­ing close atten­tion to con­sumers’ new expec­ta­tions and mak­ing efforts to not only meet those expec­ta­tions, but also get ahead of them.

As a con­se­quence, busi­ness struc­tures are chang­ing, lead­ing to make com­mit­ments being made cen­tral­ly and a gen­er­al increase in com­pe­ten­cy, with spe­cial­ist dis­cus­sions hap­pen­ing. Giv­en how urgent it is to make these deci­sions, peo­ple are also becom­ing more aware that these choic­es are com­plex and require mul­ti-faceted perspectives.

The com­plex­i­ty of the sub­ject seems to be a strate­gic and intel­lec­tu­al chal­lenge for all the stake­hold­ers we have spo­ken to. Can you tell us more about the specifics?

Erwan Harscoët: For most busi­ness­es, their envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns take the form of car­bon foot­print. But this involves dif­fer­ent issues, includ­ing depen­dence on fos­sil fuels and CO2 emis­sions, of course, but also the impact on bio­di­ver­si­ty, con­sump­tion of nat­ur­al resources, var­i­ous kinds of pol­lu­tion, and so on. All these aspects are inter­con­nect­ed and not always com­pat­i­ble with one anoth­er. For exam­ple, the use of bio-based mate­ri­als can lead to defor­esta­tion or reduce avail­abil­i­ty of food sources.

For plas­tics, the most impor­tant issue is end-of-life. And the first thing that makes this more com­pli­cat­ed is the vari­ety of poly­mers that are used, which com­plex­i­fies their end-of-life.

Sec­ond­ly, there are mul­ti­ple, large fam­i­lies of solu­tions and ‘bio-based’, is not the most wide­ly used. It is worth not­ing that in most bio-based appli­ca­tions, a bio-based prod­uct will not actu­al­ly have much impact on its end-of-life man­age­ment. On the oth­er hand, biodegrad­abil­i­ty is impor­tant. It is a use­ful solu­tion for cer­tain prod­ucts, such as small, light­weight pieces of pack­ag­ing made from soft plas­tic that are hard to col­lect and eas­i­ly fly away in the wind. The advan­tage in using biodegrad­able mate­ri­als here is that if their end-of-life is bad­ly man­aged, they will still break down by themselves.

More­over, for prod­ucts like­ly to end up in the ocean, being biodegrad­able is an ide­al solu­tion. This is espe­cial­ly true in the many coun­tries where rub­bish col­lec­tion is non-exis­tent or infor­mal (with peo­ple scav­eng­ing for cer­tain waste prod­ucts in land­fills). For exam­ple, resins made from PHA (poly­hy­drox­yalka­noates) break down quick­ly and effec­tive­ly in sea­wa­ter. But, if we want to make a prod­uct biodegrad­able in this way, oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tics will be lost – specif­i­cal­ly, the pro­tec­tive­ness of the plas­tic. Weigh­ing up dif­fer­ent kinds of per­for­mance in com­bi­na­tion with eco­nom­ic fac­tors is the third com­pli­cat­ing factor.

Do we nec­es­sar­i­ly have to decide between dif­fer­ent kinds of per­for­mance? What about think­ing out­side the box?

EH: We can try to think dif­fer­ent­ly by chang­ing per­spec­tive. For exam­ple, you could only mar­ket plas­tics that are valu­able enough for peo­ple to be inter­est­ed in col­lect­ing and recy­cling them, like bot­tles made from trans­par­ent PET.

If we look at Ger­many, some stake­hold­ers are call­ing for the return of the con­tain­er-deposit scheme, which was, after all, an old cir­cu­lar econ­o­my approach. But some actors in the indus­try are not in favor of that approach – now, with plas­tic bot­tles going into chan­nels for selec­tive sort­ing, enough val­ue is added for the recy­cling of all plas­tic pack­ag­ing to be cheaper.

OJ. For the argu­ment to work here, you have to con­sid­er the entire val­ue chain and take all costs into account, as well as scale effects. The same log­ic applies to bio­plas­tics pro­duc­tion. We need new tech­nolo­gies to devel­op new kinds of mate­ri­als, but we also have to ques­tion the entire val­ue chain. This goes from the new pro­duc­tion process­es for bio-based resources, and whether they meet cer­tain envi­ron­men­tal and social cri­te­ria, to the end-of-life phase of these new mate­ri­als, and the ways they could be col­lect­ed and recy­cled. Some mar­ket seg­ments that have greater means at their dis­pos­al or are under more reg­u­la­to­ry pres­sure – such as food pack­ag­ing – can lead the way for oth­er sectors.

With recy­cling, for instance, bev­er­age man­u­fac­tur­ers play a par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant role. This indus­try is very promi­nent and was the first to be crit­i­cized for play­ing a role in marine pol­lu­tion. Con­se­quent­ly, it was the first to invest in devel­op­ing new recy­cling tech­nolo­gies that ben­e­fit­ted oth­er seg­ments of the pack­ag­ing sec­tor and oth­er prod­ucts. Sim­i­lar­ly, depoly­meri­sa­tion tech­nolo­gies that are cur­rent­ly in devel­op­ment will also advance the recy­cling capa­bil­i­ties for plas­tic con­tain­ers used by oth­er man­u­fac­tur­ers, and syn­thet­ic tex­tiles, which at present can­not be recycled.

Do busi­ness­es under­stand these eco­nom­ic arguments?

OJ. There is much vari­a­tion from one sec­tor to anoth­er. We see a real dif­fer­ence in matu­ri­ty between man­u­fac­tur­ers, with new arrivals some­times show­ing a cer­tain naivety. For exam­ple, the tex­tile indus­try has recent­ly become a lot more com­mit­ted. More announce­ments are being made, either about mak­ing prod­ucts from nat­ur­al resources (bio-based mate­ri­als) or about the cir­cu­lar econ­o­my (recy­cled mate­ri­als). But the com­pa­nies that use pack­ag­ing like plas­tic bot­tles, are now going to be mak­ing every effort to col­lect them and use the recy­cled mate­r­i­al for their own prod­ucts. So, the tex­tile indus­try is going to be run­ning short on recy­cled mate­ri­als if they want to scale this approach up, and they will have to devel­op their own channels.

The dif­fer­ent argu­ments, indus­tries and approach­es (recy­cling or biodegrad­able prod­ucts) can all co-exist. That being said, they aren’t always inter­con­nect­ed. But they can be, espe­cial­ly in the case of com­pa­nies that know and under­stand each oth­er. This could lead to bio-based mate­ri­als for which the end-of-life has also been fac­tored into the equa­tion, or man­u­fac­tur­ers from the same sec­tor that bring their prod­ucts in line with one anoth­er, opt­ing for sim­pler com­po­nents, using only recy­clable mate­ri­als, etc. This has been observed in the con­sumer goods sec­tor and should car­ry over to oth­er mar­kets, such as the auto­mo­tive industry.