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Takeaway message from plastic conference ‘frustrating’, says NatureWorks

By Joe Whitworth , 30-Oct-2012

The full message of a speech by a European Commissioner was missed and led to bioplastics being misrepresented, according to NatureWorks. 

The recent PolyTalk conference in Germany highlighted some important issues for industry but the takeaway message was ‘frustrating’, according to the manufacturer of the plant-based Ingeo biopolymer (polylactic acid), used to create plastics and fibers.

Steve Davies, the director of marketing and communications at NatureWorks, told FoodProductionDaily.com that the overall content of speeches from Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Environment, and Jonathon Porritt, co-founder of Forum for the Future was positive but it seemed it was only the problems with bioplastic that came through.

Feedstock competition

Davies said he agreed with most of Potočnik's speech but he was furthest off when he said some bioplastics are in competition with food production adding it was “simply not the case”. 

For Ingeo for example, roughly one half of one percent of the starch associated with the world industrial corn crop goes to bioplastic production.

“Our industry is just beginning to stand up and walk, this is our first generation feedstock and we are already looking into other sources.

“The feedstock is very geographical dependant but sugar cane could be used, the stalk of the plant or the corn stalk as a plant source but there is no collection infrastructure.”

He said with pulp and paper usage dropping and the infrastructure already in place with the mills and collection methods, it one was one option as a future source.

“One step further out is turning CO2 as a feedstock into plastic, design microbes that feed on CO2 and excrete biofuels, the next question is can they spit the building blocks out for plastic?”

Potočnik said compostable bioplastics could contaminate the recycling cycle of conventional plastic if it is not kept separate but Davies believes the statement is a bit behind the technology shown by today’s conclusions.

We know that bioplastics can be sorted with technology now available. There are a number of pilot projects now going on in Europe, UK, and the US that prove the effectiveness of these sorting techniques.

"From work done by entities such as WRAP, by the State of California, and by COREPLA, among others, trials have shown that the sorting technology exists which can preclude contamination, for example, keeping material out of existing recycling streams."

COREPLA is the Italian national consortium who organizes the collection of plastic packaging waste guaranteeing recovery and recycling.

Bioplastic replacement

Davies agreed with Potočnik that bioplastics replacing petro-olefin based plastic was fairly unrealistic in the mid and long term, but added that it didn’t take away from what they could offer.

In his speech, Potočnik said the "business as usual" scenario is not possible with three times more resources needed by 2050.

“But already 60% of the world’s major ecosystems on which these resources depend are degraded or are used unsustainably. So "Business as usual" is not an option. We need a different growth model.

“The future of industry in Europe and world-wide depends on achieving sustainable resource use. As we don’t have another planet, we have no other choice but to use the resources of planet Earth more efficiently.

“We need to reduce the volume of virgin materials used by industry. But that does not mean we must just become service based economies and let industries in other regions of the world feed our needs: we need to de-materialise, not de-industrialise. We need to develop smarter products that do the same with fewer resources, or at least fewer virgin resources.”

Status quo challenge

Davies said they saw speakers that were strongly challenging the plastics industry status quo, and setting a strong overall conference theme around improved sustainability. 

“I was cheering as I read through the speech that business as usual was not possible. The conference was challenging EU plastic industry to take a hard look at itself.

“He said bioplastics have ideal applications but it was the problems with bioplastics that came through which was the frustration for us. In some ways it was the perfect business case for biobased plastics and the coverage didn’t capture what the full message was.”

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