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The Future of Plastic Cutlery: Bioplastics vs Plastic

Many single use plastic items could soon be banned in the EU by the future "EU Directive on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment".

The main reason for this EU legislation and the first sentence of the proposal is … the amount of plastic marine litter in oceans and seas is growing …. Top of the list of items to be banned is disposable cutlery, typically produced from polystyrene or polypropylene. Although both of these materials are recyclable, and this badge has been enough to satisfy the brands and distributors of these products, it is now becoming increasingly clear that only a tiny percentage of the cutlery used across Europe has actually been recycled. The rest of it ends up in landfills, incinerators or unfortunately discarded in the environment where it becomes a threat to wildlife. If both of these materials are recyclable, why are recycling rates so low?

The main issue is collection. First of all, consumers are often confused about which bins certain items should go in, and what items can actually be recycled. The other issue is contamination, cutlery and other disposables often get mixed in with food waste which then requires further separation and cost, and the food scraps and residues can be difficult to clean off of the cutlery reducing the quality and value of the material when it does get recycled.

This key issue was explored in a research paper published in the journal ‘Waste Management’ in 2009 which showed that standard plastic cutlery results in a ‘double whammy’ for the environment. First of all, contamination of the plastic with food waste prevents it being recycled. The secondary result is an increase in greenhouse gases, as food waste degrades anaerobically when it ends up in landfill generating methane, a greenhouse gas 4,000 times stronger than CO 2 .

The paper also showed that by switching to bioplastics which can be disposed of through organic recovery (i.e. commercial composting) “remarkable improvements” can be made. Specifically, using compostable cutlery allows ten-fold energy savings and a three-fold reduction in greenhouse gas emissions throughout the entire lifecycle of the products compared with the current scenario using standard plastics. This is primarily because compostable cutlery is produced from renewable resources (sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) and can be disposed of in the organic waste stream, avoiding landfill and the generation of methane.

Recent public and media attention regarding the recycling of plastics has shown that in many scenarios such as disposable cutlery, catering utensils and even food packaging where contamination with food waste can occur it is incredibly difficult to recycle standard plastics back to a quality product and avoid downcycling into something of lower value. Bioplastics open the door the an entirely new organics waste stream where separation of plastics and food leftovers is no longer an issue and composting can be used to recover the nutrients for further use as good quality compost.

One recent innovator in this space is Floreon. Floreon have developed a range of PLA based compounds that offer excellent performance combined with compostability (in industrial composting, as is used with food waste disposal). Floreon’s compounds are also very easy to manufacture with addressing concerns such as the long cycle times associated with the standard bioplastic PLA. Floreon have invested specifically in developing a rigid compostable compound (Floreon 800) for the production of cutlery.

Through a grant from Innovate UK Floreon have also commissioned their own cutlery test mould which can be used for demonstrator trials with customers prior to using their own tooling to evaluate Floreon. Floreon 800 is suitable for use with hot food and drinks, fully approved for food contact and has been shown to work well on existing tooling designed for materials such as polystyrene. Floreon hope that the ease of use of their material combined with the ‘premium feel’ will help differentiate the product from cheap, overengineered CPLA cutlery which is almost exclusively imported into Europe from China.

With incoming legislation expected in Europe and the UK it is anticipated that brands and users of disposable cutlery will soon be forced to evaluate bioplastics as an alternative to the cheap polystyrene cutlery in use today. The association of plastics recyclers in Europe recently called for a separate waste stream for bioplastics and the European Union will make separate collection of biowaste mandatory across Europe by 2023 making this the ideal time to switch to bioplastics.

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