Will Bioplastics Replace PET?

A report commissioned by UK-based Staeger has identified four bio-based and/or biodegradable plastics as potential replacements for PET for use in clear plastics packaging: PLA, cellulose acetate (CA), bio-based PET, and polyethylene furanoate (PEF). However, it warns that all four are currently significantly more expensive than the cost of recycled PET.

In response to environmental concerns about plastics packaging, Staeger asked consultancy company NNFCC to look at an array of polymers produced from renewable raw materials (bio-based polymers), to see if they would firstly be suitable for use and secondly, to establish whether by using them it would be better for the environment. This report was part funded by the European Union.

Environmentally, bio-based PET (30 per cent bio-based content) and PLA were both found to be better than petroleum PET, though neither were as beneficial as recycled PET. They do, however, have widespread commercial production and availability. LCAs were not available for CS or PEF. PEF has improved physical properties and is 100 per cent bio-based, which makes the environmental impact likely to be lower than PET, but not recycled PET.

Meanwhile, CA and PLA are both compostable, PLA industrially and CA home and industrially. Staeger’s managing director, Ian Jamie, explained that although possible, the recycling of these polymers is currently not established. The properties of these polymers are poor compared with PET and both have difficulty folding for rigid packaging.

“Bio-based PET and PEF are effectively ‘drop-in’ products for petroleum PET,” said Jamie. “Both can be recycled in current PET recycling facilities and processed in current production facilities. Their durability therefore also remains the same and if lost to the environment would contribute to the accumulation of plastic pollution.”

Claims Jamie, the continuing use of recycled PET with high recycled content represents the best alternative to virgin petroleum PET vis-a-vis the four biopolymers studied, as dictated by life cycle assessment results.

“This then, in theory, seems to be the best route to take and provided the leeching out into the environment is minimised via, better education, a uniform countrywide Council collection service, clear labelling and much more high-quality UK/European wide recycling (rather than exporting to the Far East), it will continue to be the case,” he concluded. “However, biopolymers that break down in the natural environment are still of interest to us and we will continue to explore them.”



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