That was the title and theme of the recent one-day seminar held in Mons, Belgium, at which an imposing speaker lineup addressed the issue of a sustainable future – with plastics – and what this should look like.
In the 45 minutes allotted to him, keynote speaker Prof. Ramani Narayan, from Michigan State University in the United States, discussed the importance of a comprehensive plastic end-of-life strategy, setting the tone for the rest of the day.
During his lecture, he went through the basics, discussing the difference between biobased and biodegradable – ‘biodegradability is recycling by nature’ – and emphasising the importance of understanding that the former is a beginning of life issue, while the latter concerns the end of life.
‘And at the end of life, it’s about breaking the carbon-to-carbon bond,’ he explained. ‘Does it make sense to put so much effort into that?’ Durable plastics, he said, should be recovered through mechanical and chemical recycling.
However, he also noted that switching out the carbon-carbon backbone for a carbon-ester bond will make this susceptible to hydrolysis. “We can create a next generation of biodegradable materials simply by making different bonds, to get bio-polyesters,’ he argued. “I believe that esters are the future, to play with and create molecules that give a biodegradable performance. The key is the ester molecule.”
And in the future part of the solution to deal with biodegradable waste. Today, so much food gets thrown away and landfilled, burned or, mainly in the emerging economies, allowed to degrade in dumps. All these options generate more greenhouse gas emissions.
“The big problem is mismanaged waste. We need to divert mismanaged waste to collection and recycling, and the organics should be composted. This means that food packaging needs to be better designed to fit the purpose. Packaging associated with food should be compostable. Certified compostable plastics are an enabling technology to effectively divert food and other organic wastes.”
And the question: is biodegradability a solution for end-of-life plastic? When it makes sense, as when dealing with organic waste, yes. “Although the unqualified use of the term biodegradable is wrong, misleading and deceptive, and this is something to keep an eye on.”
The rest of the day further elaborated on these themes. Martin Schlummer, from Fraunhofer IVV (Germany) talked about the new processes for recycling – also with a focus on food and packaging, in other words, ‘contaminated’ plastic – that are currently under development. Fraunhofer’s CreaSolve process is a physical one, yielding near virgin quality polymers, he said.
The focus of the next speaker, Prof. Alfonso Jimenez, Universidad de Alicante in Spain was on ‘valorisation’, among others of food waste. His team is researching the use of almond byproducts, perhaps as the next feedstock for biobased plastics.
Werner Bosmans, of the DG environment at European Commission explained the relevance of the European Strategy for plastics in a circular economy. Noting that ‘not all bioplastics have a good sustainability record, he stressed the need to ‘keep the value of plastics in the cycle’ and not necessarily to ‘let it go back to nature.’
“We need to identify applications where biodegradability makes sense’, he said, echoing Prof. Narayan.
Elodie Guémard , R&D Manager at Carbios, France, discussed the enzymatic approach to enhancing the biodegradability of PLA, while Bruno Van Gompel, Technical and Supply Chain Director at Coca-Cola Western Europe emphasised the need for better collection of plastic packaging and talked about how Coca-Cola was planning to do this.
The last speaker, Sicco de Vos, talked about Corbion’s development of a proprietary process for the production of FDCA and the potential of PEF, as a sustainable biobased polymer, to replace PET.