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Biodegradable materials – part of the solution to the plastics problem?

Our increasing use of plastics places a number of strains on the environment, both in terms of the fossil fuels used to produce them and the inevitable littering that follows in their wake. Many measures are required to achieve a sustainable development, including the increased use of biodegradable materials and products. Achieving this will require a holistic approach – from materials development to waste management via the consumer.

We use in the region of 1 million tonnes of plastic each year in Sweden alone. Some of these products have an extremely short lifecycle as disposable items and plastic packaging. The use of plastic packaging in particular has increased significantly over recent years. Even if we are getting better at recycling the plastics we use, this in turn places great demands on the recycling system, meaning that identifying new means of recycling will become increasingly important.

The increased use of plastics also contributes to littering in the oceans and on land, including the generation over time of microplastics, small, barely visible pieces of plastic that, in the case of traditional plastics, break down extremely slowly, If utilised correctly, biodegradable materials and products have the potential to reduce the strain on our natural environment and instead contribute to a biological cycle in which, rather than being incinerated, materials can be turned into biogas and/or biomass.

Getting to grips with the concept

The project Biodegradable Materials for a Sustainable Society is intended to provide the conditions for stakeholders to study, develop and implement innovative solutions to the problem. One important aspect of the project is to clear up the lingering confusion regarding biodegradable materials.

“There is a certain amount of confusion surrounding the term biodegradable; what does it actually mean and what differentiates it from bio-based? It is important to get to grips with this distinction; firstly, for the sake of consumers who need to know if they are buying a biodegradable product and, if so, what they can expect from it and what to do with it once it’s purpose and been served and secondly, so that policy-makers understand it in order to avoid mistakes in our legislation and regulations,” says Anna Wiktorsson, RISE researcher and project manager.

Labelling for consumers

One important element of the project is the development of a simple labelling system that makes it easy for consumers to make the right choices, particularly by clearly stating where one should, and should not, dispose of the product once its purpose is served.

“If, for example, one looks at food packaging, there is no reason to believe that in future we won’t be able to simply throw this away together with food waste, so that the packaging too can compost and finally become biogas, instead of being incinerated as we do today,” says Anna Wiktorsson, who continues:

“This would make it easy for consumers to do the right thing. not least with regard to fast-food packaging handled on-the-go. At the same time, this will contribute to increased recycling in the form of biogas production. That said, it must be made crystal clear to consumers which packaging can be composted and which can’t, given the problems caused by modern plastics in the composting process. This implies that materials developers, process developers and biogas plants must work together to identify solutions that work all the way along the chain. In the case of disposable items, plastic bags and fast-food packaging, things that easily find their way into nature, biodegradability can be an important property.”

Anna Wiktorsson is also at pains to point out that littering is primarily a behavioural issue.

“We shouldn’t throw things away in nature but things still end up there, meaning that biodegradability can be a form of Plan B for minimising the gradual accumulation of plastics in the environment.”

Engaging the entire value chain

Biodegradable materials have enormous potential to contribute to the sustainable use of plastics in selected fields; however, we currently lack a holistic perspective. It is expected that the project will develop materials and prototype products in collaborations along the entire value chain from raw materials to waste management, with the consumer perspective clearly represented.

"There is a massive requirement for everyone in the value chain to communicate with one another, from materials developers to waste facilities; so that, even at the development stage, we are already considering how materials will be dealt with once their purpose has been served – will they be recycled, broken down, composted, what will happen to them?,” says Anna Wiktorsson, who believes that we must begin to utilise new, renewable materials to replace fossil-based plastics; however, to succeed in this, a holistic approach is required.

“We must be able to manage the material throughout the value chain, even waste management.”

Contributing an objective voice to the debate

It is expected that it will be possible to present prototypes of materials and packaging within a couple of years and, in parallel with the development of these new solutions, RISE will contribute an objective voice to an occasionally hostile debate.

“Emotions sometime run high on the topic of biodegradable materials and many decisions are made based on feelings. This places RISE in an important role as a neutral third party that can contribute a modicum of objectivity and science to the debate,” says Anna Wiktorsson.

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Anna Wiktorsson

Forsknings och affärsutvecklare

+46 10 516 51 34

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