Why Are Bioplastics Stagnating in Germany?
Bioplastics are seen as a sustainable alternative in the packaging sector, but uncertainties and limited availability are slowing down their breakthrough. How can the obstacles be removed?
The packaging industry is placing high hopes in bioplastics as a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastics. Indeed, the various materials offer benefits such as reducing CO2 emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. But why has widespread adoption stalled?
One reason is that there is still considerable uncertainty about the appropriate applications for bioplastics. For example, production from potential food sources such as sugar cane or corn could lead to conflicts between food and plastics production. FACHPACK 2024 has therefore created the “Alternative Packaging Solutions” pavilion. Here, users can find out which alternatives to fossil or paper-based materials can be used.
Compared to the global plastics market, bioplastics production is therefore still negligible. According to data collected by European Bioplastics in cooperation with the Nova Institute, they currently account for less than one percent of the total plastics production of more than 390 million tons per year. By 2027, the association expects production capacity to increase from 2.2 million tons (2022) to 6.3 million tons. Biodegradable plastics, such as PLA and PHA, are the most prevalent at 51 percent. The share of non-biodegradable bio-based plastics is expected to decrease to about 44 percent by 2027, although their absolute production capacity is expected to increase.
Bio-Based or Biodegradable – or Both?
The distinction between the two is enough to confuse many consumers. Not all bioplastics are biodegradable or based on renewable resources. It all depends on the composition. For example, bio-based plastics are made at least partially from biogenic resources, such as corn or sugar cane, and are not biodegradable, such as bio-based PE. Biodegradable plastics, on the other hand, decompose under certain conditions, leaving behind mainly CO2 and water. They can also be made from fossil feedstocks, such as polycaprolactone (PCL) and polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT). Bio-based and biodegradable plastics, on the other hand, are based on renewable resources and are biodegradable, e.g. polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), polybutylene succinate (PBS), starch-based blends. The demarcation is complicated by the fact that the different types can partially overlap.
Today, these materials have processing properties similar to those of conventional plastics. They are used in a variety of markets, with packaging accounting for the largest share at 48 percent (2022).
Disposal Not Yet Consistently Regulated
Despite their potential, bioplastics also pose challenges in terms of disposal. There are no uniform legal regulations for the disposal of bioplastic products, and Deutsche Umwelthilfe criticizes that this leads to consumer uncertainty. In particular, the label "compostable" does not correspond to reality. This is because many of these products labeled as compostable do not decompose completely in composting plants, resulting in residues and quality loss in the resulting compost.
The type of bioplastic – degradable or nondegradable – determines how it is disposed of. While drop-in bioplastics, i.e. bio-based plastics that are chemically identical to conventional plastics, can be easily recycled in existing recycling plants, biodegradable plastics are usually diverted from the recycling process in Germany and incinerated instead. If they do enter the recycling stream, there is a risk that they will lead to a reduction in the quality of the recyclate. This is where the German Packaging Act comes into play, with its producer responsibility. The Federal Environment Agency therefore points out that biodegradable plastics belong in the yellow bin or the yellow bag and that the manufacturers of these plastics must comply with the Packaging Act.
Politicians See Need for Further Research
The European Commission has addressed the issue of bioplastics as part of its Green Deal. In a framework paper, the Commission recommends “Bio-based plastics should be produced sustainably and clearly labeled, preferably using organic waste as a raw material”. However, the framework paper is not legally binding. There is currently no EU legislation that comprehensively addresses bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics.
At the same time, the Union is supporting research into bioplastics, such as the Bio-Plastics Europe collaborative project. This project aims to explore sustainable strategies and solutions for bio-based products, in support of the EU Plastics Strategy and the circular economy. It started in 2019 and ended in September 2023. As a final step, the project aims to implement the practices of a handbook that has been developed during the project in Slovenia, Lithuania, Italy and Greece in close cooperation with local authorities.
The German government also sees a need for further research and is funding, for example, the Rubio project (Regional Entrepreneurial Alliance for Building Value Chains for Technical Bioplastics in Central Germany).
Joint Effort Needed
Despite their potential benefits, there are still a number of hurdles to overcome before bioplastics can become widespread in Germany. While great progress has been made in research and development, the lack of clear legislation, concerns about sustainability and a lack of public awareness are hindering wider acceptance. In order to realize the full potential of bioplastics, it is important that industry, government and research work together to develop solutions to overcome these barriers and promote acceptance in Germany.