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Bioplastics: Great green hope or a false promise?

Desiree Therre / DW Share:
Children collect plastic bottles along Manila Bay, Philippines in October 2017. Reuters

Bioplastic is meant to be eco-friendly and biodegradable. But on closer inspection, it loses its green sheen, writes DW’s Desiree Therre.

If Josefine Staats is to be believed, the red algae Kappaphycus could be our environmental savior – at least when it comes to plastic.

“Algae doesn’t need any land to grow. It doesn’t need fertiliser or pesticides and it grows quickly,” said the entrepreneur from Berlin. Ms Staats runs a natural foods company and sells, among other things, algae snacks.

Now she wants to turn the seaweed into something else: a bioplastic that would look and function just like the oil-based variety. The difference is, it would be biodegradable, and therefore eco-friendly, Ms Staats says.

Ms Staats is still working out the details of her vision and she’s not the first person to promote the idea of algae-based plastics. But adequate alternatives to conventional plastics are desperately needed.

Much of the more than 300 million tons of the oil-based material produced each year ends up polluting the environment. The International Energy Agency projects the amount of oil used to produce all of that plastic will soar from 12 million barrels a year in 2017 to 18 million barrels a year by 2050.

Whether bioplastics are a viable solution is open to debate. They’re not automatically better for the environment or the climate than their oil-based counterpart, say experts.

“There are certainly products where biodegradable plastic makes sense,” said Franziska Krüger of the German Environment Agency (UBA) but we shouldn’t “greenwash it.”

For instance, just because a bag is labeled a bioplastic, doesn’t mean it won’t end up floating around in the ocean. Depending on what it’s made from, the bag might be easily compostable at home, biodegradable only under the right conditions, or might even break down as slowly as traditional plastics – some of which can take up to 600 years to degrade.

Furthermore, crops, such as corn and sugarcane, used to make bioplastics require a lot of land and fertiliser. That could damage soil and mean less land is available to grow food crops.

These are some of the issues addressed at the recent PHA World Congress in Cologne, Germany. PHAs – or polyhydroxyalkanoates – are a kind of polyester produced by bacteria as a source of energy and carbon store to be used when food is scarce.

Right now, recycling companies and local authorities don’t have the means to deal with many bioplastics, which have different properties and require different methods of disposal.

“Most bioplastics don’t ever have the pleasure of being composted,” Ms Krüger said, adding that most composting facilities label bioplastics as a “contaminant” material. And so far, the recycling sector has little incentive to invest in processes to deal with the relatively little bioplastic that’s actually out there.

In 2017, 2 million tons of bioplastic was produced, according to the Berlin-based industry group European Bioplastic. That figure is set to rise to 2.4 million tons by 2022.

But experts say for the bioplastics sector to really take off, crude oil must become more expensive. In recent months, prices have been volatile, recently reaching a four-year high before tumbling again.

Entrepreneurs like Ms Staats want to be ready with their algae alternatives when companies do come knocking.

The Berliner also wants her startup to double as a development project in Sri Lanka. She plans to support fisherwomen, many of whom lost their husbands in the civil war between 1983 and 2009, to farm seaweed organically.

It’s going to be some time before she can get her first product – bioplastic wrapping for the natural foods company she already runs – to market.

“The technology for the production of algae-based bioplastic is there but not yet fully developed,” she said.

She’s currently trying to raise €1 million ($1.14 million) in startup capital and is looking for a lab and scientists to work with. “So we can at least make a start,” she said.


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