Are biodegradable plastics better for the environment?

Plastics are indispensable in many areas of our modern lives, yet questions over the material’s sustainability are rarely out of the headlines these days. Are biodegradable, compostable and bio-plastics really a better environmental solution? Richard McKinlay, Head of Circular Economy at Axion, offers his opinion.

Plastic materials that at end of life can completely break down naturally and disappear harmlessly may sound like the ideal answer. People hear terms such as ‘biodegradable’, ‘bio-plastic’ and ‘compostable’ and assume that these plastics are more ‘environmentally-friendly’. However, the reality is not so simple.

The main issue here is a lack of understanding of the nature of compostable or biodegradable plastics and what bio-plastics are; their specific applications and the specialist treatment process needed to deal with these materials.

Bioplastics are made using renewable feedstocks rather than being derived directly from oil. Bioplastics can be used in the production of conventional polymers that can be recycled, such as recycled PET, or biodegradable polymers such as PLA.

It may seem obvious that selecting a bioplastic is the most sustainable option. However, although there is a clear benefit from not depleting a non-renewable source, we need to consider that many petrochemicals are a by-product of the oil refining process. While we still live in an economy that is so heavily reliant on oil, it may be better to make use of its by-products rather than let them go to waste.

Bio-plastics are not free of environmental impact, and the carbon emissions associated with growing crops and converting these into the required chemicals needs to be taken into account.

“Compostable” and “biodegradable” are more or less synonymous terms and mean that the material will completely break down under certain conditions. The key to understanding any potential benefit is to know whether the polymer will easily break down, say in your home compost, or if it has to be treated in an industrial composting facility.

Many plastics that are described as biodegradable or compostable have to be collected and separated from the rest of the plastic waste and be sent to a purpose-designed industrial composting facility where they can be broken down successfully. These facilities exist for food waste, but ensuring compostable packaging reaches them can be challenging.

Consumer confusion over what materials can and can’t be recycled is another big issue. Is this plastic water bottle made from a biodegradable plastic or ‘conventional’ plastic, like PET? Does it go in the recycling bin or with the food waste collection?

Currently, throughout the UK there is a good collection and recycling infrastructure for PET bottles and this can be accessed by most people through council kerbside collections. The infrastructure for food waste collections is not as well-established, especially for ‘on-the-go’ collections.

So for water bottles made from biodegradable plastic to be correctly recycled, a public communication campaign would be required so that people understand that biodegradable plastic should go in with food waste and more food waste collection facilities in public places would be needed.

Some packaging such as that made from starch, will readily breakdown in a less controlled environment. However it is not possible to switch completely to these type of materials because they are not suitable for all applications. For example, kitchen/food recycling caddy liners are starch-based and will degrade in a home composting system. However this material would not be suitable for use in packaging as it would quickly start to break down when wet.

It’s important for brand owners, food producers and manufacturers to consider very carefully what packaging format they use and to make an informed decision based on the reality of our current waste management infrastructure and level of public understanding. Ensuring that products are ‘designed for recycling’ is essential if we are to recover more of our resources.

They also need to understand what actually happens to their materials at end-of-life and what their environmental impact could be. What is described as ‘compostable’ doesn’t mean it will just break down at the side of the road.

Marine litter is a huge concern, but only 2% of plastic waste in the oceans is estimated to come from the whole of Europe and the US combined. Using plastic bottles in the UK is a perfectly responsible packaging system because 99% of householders can put their plastic bottles in their household recycling collection bins.

Attention has to be turned to ‘on-the-go’ waste and littering. Levels of marine plastic could be reduced by improving ‘on-the-go’ waste provision and anti-littering public information campaigns. Better infrastructure is needed in public places to allow people to recycle when out and about. This is happening with more recycling points at places like train stations, airports and town centres. But people have to use them, understand them and know why it matters.

So are biodegradable plastics better for the environment? It’s a massive challenge and, as we’ve argued, it’s also complicated!

Ultimately it has to be down to infrastructure investment, public education and behavioural changes. Plastics are an inherent part of our lives and not ‘all bad’. Their responsible use and disposal/recycling should be a top priority!

Axion joins latest Jaguar Land Rover-led REALITY aluminium recycling project

Axion is undertaking further research into increasing recycled aluminium content in new vehicles as part of REcycled ALuminium Through Innovative TechnologY (REALITY), a new £2 million collaborative project led by Jaguar Land Rover.

Working with other consortium partners, Axion will focus on techniques for sorting and separating specialist alloys from aluminium derived from end-of-life vehicles.

Part-funded by Innovate UK, REALITY is an extension of the REALCAR (REcycled ALuminium CAR) projects, initially launched by Jaguar Land Rover in 2008 to create a closed-loop process for post-industrial aluminium scrap from its vehicle manufacturing. The original project and subsequent work with suppliers enabled Jaguar Land Rover to reclaim more than 75,000 tonnes of aluminium scrap and re-use it in the aluminium production process in 2016/17. The three-year REALITY project builds on the success of this earlier work.

Axion’s Head of Circular Economy, Richard McKinlay comments: “The REALITY project will refine the process of turning aluminium from ‘end-of-life’ cars into new vehicles. It will continue to deliver significant sustainability benefits, with aluminium recycling requiring up to 95% less energy than primary aluminium production.”

Axion’s research will focus on proving the technical and economic viability of separation techniques for the many different non-ferrous metals, such as zinc, copper and brass, from the scrap aluminium, and for separating the different aluminium alloys from each other.

Richard explains: “These extracted aluminium alloys will also be extensively tested to assess their suitability for reuse in new vehicles. If we can extract the right alloys and reuse them in the right components, then we will have created a closed-loop value chain for automotive aluminium.”

The new project will consider advanced sorting technologies and evaluate the next generation aluminium alloys for greater recyclability. Axion’s team will work on developing the sorting technologies for recovery of high-grade recycled aluminium.

Axion will evaluate and optimise sensor-based sorting technologies alongside collaboration with Novelis, Norton Aluminium, Warwick Manufacturing Group, Brunel University and Innoval Technology.

Richard adds: “This ground-breaking research will contribute towards the development of the circular economy for the automotive sector and enhanced environmental performance. Innovations in the sorting and separating technologies applied to automotive end-of-life waste streams will also help other sectors, including packaging and construction.”

UK should ‘create demand for recycled materials’

Axion is calling for the creation of greater demand for recycled materials in the UK following China’s decision to restrict imports of waste paper and plastics.

Axion Director Keith Freegard says that although the changed rules imposing a maximum 0.5% contamination level in imported materials present a ‘huge challenge’ in the short term, the UK should be looking at the opportunities this situation creates.

Speaking after highlighting the issues during his early January appearance on BBC Business News Today and BBC News, Keith explains: “Surely now the UK Government could consider supporting the growth of a strategic and sustainable resource recovery industry in the UK to feed valuable materials into UK manufacturers.”

Urging the creation of more sustainable business models like Axion’s, which recycles materials from end-of-life vehicles and WEEE, he says a ‘supportive legislative framework’ would be needed to produce the right conditions for a ‘healthy, strategic resource economy’ in the UK.

Key factors in developing these robust business models would be:

  • identifying stable, long-term sources of waste products as input feedstock;
  • building business partnerships with collaborative shareholders that bridge the main exchange points in the circular economy for taking collected waste materials back into new-life products so ‘interested parties’ share the mutual benefits; and
  • creating a competitive circular flows of materials back into multiple manufacturing sectors, such as construction, vehicles, electronics, and packaging.

Further action should include public sector procurement measures, which favour sustainable products both in design and use of recycled materials, and encouraging new product design with mandatory use of recycled/recovered materials at high percentage levels.

“What’s needed is a reward structure for doing this and we fully support this type of approach,” Keith emphasises. “Carrots, not sticks, are needed to make real changes in organisations. Michael Gove’s recent announcement of a series of measures that focus on increasing the quality and volume of collected post-consumer packaging waste is a good start. But measures should also be in place to stimulate demand for recycled materials in new products.”

He points out that the Commons Select Committee the EAC (Environmental Audit Committee) made this point just before Christmas, calling for a producer responsibility compliance fee structure that stimulates the use of recycled plastic, rewards design for recyclability, and increases costs for packaging that is difficult to re-use or recycle.

The EAC called for the introduction of a mandatory requirement of 50% recycled content in the production of new plastic bottles by 2023. This would create demand and stimulate a circular economy for plastic bottles; fitting with suggestions made by the BPF Recyclers Group over the last five years.

Keith concludes: “I think the demand creation in ‘materials hungry’ industries is where there really needs to be some more Government intervention in terms of strategic policy.

“Recycled material can be bought from anywhere in the world; clearly the best place to buy it would be from locally-sourced and secure, short-supply chains within the same economy and same currency. That should make a strong sustainability story for any industry!”

He adds: “If we could get some real Government engagement on a clear industrial strategy that involves sourcing materials from a vibrant, growing technology-based materials recovery sector; that would be a significant strong point for the UK going forward in a post-Brexit world.”

Made in Britain workshop

Wednesday 14th March, 09:00 Axion Polymers, Trafford Park, Manchester.

Axion is hosting a  ‘Selling to the Circular Economy’ workshop on behalf of Made in Britain. The event is aimed at businesses who want to buy and sell sustainably and will be of interest to manufacturers working with provenance marketing and the circular economy.

The workshop includes:

  • 3 minute Maker session –  showcase your manufacturing business to the MiB network
  • Export, Trade and Sell More Overseas –  Lloyds Bank SME Manufacturing and the ITP trading portal
  • Q&A with Axion’s Keith Freegard
  • PR/Media Room –  MiB records interviews with members about their success stories
  • Sales & Marketing NETWORK –  tell MiB where you’d like to achieve more sales of your Made in Britain goods
  • Tour of Axion’s advanced processing plant which converts non-metallic waste from end-of-life vehicles and waste electronic goods into recycled plastics, aggregates for construction, and alternative fuels supplying to energy from waste plants.

Further details are available here.

This event is now fully booked.

 

BPF webinar: Recycling PVC – From Household Waste To Medical Supplies

Wednesday 7th February 2018 12:00 – 12:45

From oxygen masks to advertising banners, PVC recycling is crucial for a circular economy. What can be collected and recycled? What are some of the current achievements in this area?

Join this British Plastics Federation webinar to hear Jane Gardner, Head of Consulting at Axion, as she expertly discusses how different types of PVC products can be recycled and reused, including:

  • RecoMed – an initiative collecting PVC waste from hospitals
  • RecoVinyl – improving production processes, minimising emissions, and developing new recycling technology

Register for the webinar.