Total cost: bioplastics vs. the alternatives
Jan Noordegraaf, managing director of Dutch sustainable solutions consultancy Innograaf crunched the numbers during his presentation at the EUBP conference. Sustainable Plastics sat down with him to discuss the background assumptions and results in-depth.
Packaging removal tax
Noordegraaf calculated the total cost of bioplastics versus the alternatives by considering five cost drivers: the packaging removal tax in different European countries, the price on carbon as measured by LCA, the penalty on non-recycled content, the tax on single-use products, and polymer prices.
He has been collecting data for the past four years, first spurred by a client’s request to know more about the cost of materials. The extensive dataset and its conclusions are expected to be published by the Dutch Rubber and Plastic Industry Federation (NKR) sometime in 2024, to help its members ‘strategise about the future’, Noordegraaf told Sustainable Plastics.
The first cost driver is the packaging removal tax. Countries across Europe mandate packaging manufacturers to pay for the collection of their products after use, which are then destined for recycling, landfill, or incineration. Taking the average price in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Germany in 2024, biodegradable PLA or PHA manufacturers must pay €1,49/kg to have their products’ packaging removed by local services. That’s almost 6.5 times more than the price for 100% recycled PET at €0,23/kg and almost twice as much as virgin PET at €0,79/kg. The cost for bio-PE is €1,05/kg, virgin HDPE is €0,69/kg, and 100% recycled PE is €0,06/kg. Expanded polystyrene (EPS)/styrofoam has a removal cost of €0,94/kg. In comparison, the removal of paper packaging costs €0,14/kg, glass €0,06/kg, aluminium €0,11/kg, and wood €0,87/kg.
France has the lowest packaging removal tax for plastics across the board, with €0,540/kg for bio-PE and €0,64/kg for PLA/PHA. All five countries charge more to remove bioplastics than virgin or recycled polymers. In Belgium, it costs an astounding €4,033/kg to remove PLA/PHA. “It costs more to get rid of PLA than to buy it in Belgium,” Noordegraaf noted.
Interestingly, the picture didn’t always look this bleak for bioplastics.
Lobbying, or lack thereof
The entire dataset spans the period between 2013 and 2024, allowing some interesting conclusions about the effect of policy on the competitiveness of bioplastics to be drawn.
Taking the Netherlands as an example, the packaging removal tax was such that between 2013 and 2018 it was considerably cheaper to dispose of bioplastics (around €0,02/kg) than virgin PE (around €0,40/kg). Between 2019 and 2022, the values equalised at around €0,60/kg. In 2023 and 2024, it is considerably more expensive to remove biopolymers (around €1,20/kg) than virgin plastic (around €0,80/kg).
“I think that’s the effect of lobbying,” said Noordegraaf. “The focus on recycling has become so strong that recycling is more important than origin. That means if you have recyclable bio-based content from a polymer that is not part of the mainstream, there's a lot of opposition to recycling it. The recyclers have not helped the acceptance of biopolymers. They are against it, and they are the ones who own the equipment, so you cannot recycle without them,” he emphasised.
Because few plastic recycling centres accept biopolymers, the thinking goes, it costs more to collect and redirect them there or, otherwise, to landfill or incineration. In other words, the bioplastics lobby needs to up their game to balance the scales on the removal fees for biopolymers, Noordegraaf urged.
The carbon tax is a levy on the carbon emissions required to produce a material, as measured by that product’s GWP. GWP, in turn, is calculated through a product’s LCA. Carbon taxes vary per country and are likely to skyrocket as governments seek to fund the energy transition. As of Jan. 1, 2024, the carbon tax in the Netherlands for large industrial plants is €74.17 per tonne of CO2. In Germany, it is €45 per tonne of CO2.
To simplify calculations, Noordegraaf assumed a carbon tax of €100 per tonne of CO2 in a 2024 scenario and of €1,000 per tonne of CO2 in a 2050 scenario. He then calculated the levy on different materials by multiplying their GWP by the carbon tax in the two different scenarios. The GWP values were obtained from publicly accessible, published LCA reports. Results show that the carbon tax will significantly benefit bioplastics over virgin and recycled plastics by 2050, as they are made of materials that absorb carbon. Hard PE, for example, has a carbon levy of €0,18/kg in 2024 and €1,80/kg in 2050. Bio-PE, on the other hand, has a levy of €-0,22/kg in 2024 and €-2,2/kg in 2050. PHA shows values of €-0.20/kg and €-2.0/kg, whereas PLA, with a GWP slightly above zero, has €0.06/kg and €0.60/kg. Virgin and recycled PET have levies of €0,22/2,2/kg and €0,1/1,0/kg in 2024 and 2050, respectively. Paper will see similar levies at €0,105/1,05/kg.
How to calculate the LCA of bioplastics has long been a matter of controversy. “I know people will immediately disagree with the GWP values, that’s why I have shared the sources,” said Noordegraaf. LCA methods and standards for comparison with virgin materials were another key topic at the EUBP conference. Some panellists argued that biogenic and atmospheric carbon uptake could not be transparently visualised in some LCA methods, leading to unfavourable results for bioplastics. This may explain, for example, why the GWP value above for PLA is not lower than zero, as it is for PHA.
“The LCA will become the most important feature of any material,” Noordegraaf told Sustainable Plastics. “A LCA battle will emerge in the coming years, and whoever reports the best LCA will win”. While existing standards, like the ISO 140xx series are important, working towards a common methodology for all materials will be key to allowing a fair comparison, he argued.