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The necessary revolution in plastics: What solutions to reduce its impact?

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How and where can we get rid of the plastic? To answer that, there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that we can't do without plastic, we're addicted to it. The good news is that there are alternatives and innovations that make it possible to do without fossil fuels to make plastic. An informative information report has just come out, co-authored by three internationally renowned scientific experts. It is a compilation of data and figures that provides an edifying snapshot of the world's plastics consumption and needs. It also identifies the level of development of the bioplastics industry, highlighting the advantages, constraints and levers for its deployment. Will this report help to advance the management of our waste?
 
Ahese plastics have become an indispensable material in the modern economy. It is a key element for sectors as varied as packaging, construction, transport, health and electronics. For example, it represents about 15 % of the weight of a car and about 50 % of a Boeing Dreamliner. (1).  World plastics production has increased twenty-fold over the last half century, from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it is expected to double again in the next 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050. (1). It reached 320 million tonnes in 2015, 335 million tonnes in 2016 and 348 million tonnes in 2017.
Plastics has become a source of wealth (27.5 billion euros of contribution to public finances in European countries) and employment (more than 1.5 million jobs in Europe). (2).
Main application, plastic packaging represents 26 % of the total volume of plastics produced. (1). Inexpensive, lightweight and high performance, "Plastic packaging can also have a positive effect on the environment: its low weight reduces fuel consumption for transport and its protective properties allow better preservation of food, thus reducing food waste. "The Ellen MacArthur Foundation's mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.
"Plastic packaging is an essential element in preventing external contamination (chemical or microbial), preserving quality, ensuring product traceability and reducing waste and spoilage by protecting food. "says Nathalie Gontard, Director of Research at INRA. (2).
 
As a result, plastics are increasingly replacing all other packaging materials. Between 2000 and 2015, the volume of plastics packaging increased from 17 % to 25 %, due to strong growth in the global plastic packaging market of 5 % per year. In 2013, the sector put 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging on the market. A volume that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts will continue to grow strongly, doubling in the next 15 years and more than quadrupling by 2050 to reach 318 million tonnes per year - more than the entire plastics sector today. (1).
 
So what do we do? Evolving with advances in research and innovation, the subject involves relatively complex notions on which confusion is possible. It is also a subject on which many preconceptions, preconceived ideas and opinions, more or less well-founded, circulate.
In this context, a information report was commissioned from three independent scientists. (3) by two industrial companies (4) with the aim of taking stock of scientific knowledge on biosourced, biodegradable and compostable bioplastics, and explaining how these new materials represent an alternative solution to conventional plastic, more respectful of the environment and significantly improving our waste management. 
 

On the eve of the presentation of the draft law on the fight against waste and circular economy to the Council of Ministers on Wednesday 10 July, this report should not fail to question our political leaders ...
 
 

Extract, manufacture, discard...

It is the triptych of the linear value chain on which today's plastics economy is based. What is all too well known is that it has significant economic and environmental drawbacks. Worldwide, only 14 % of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. But the majority of these are processed into lower value applications and are not recyclable after use. In the end, when losses during sorting and reprocessing are included, only 5 % of the value of the materials are retained for further use. (1). After an initial short cycle of use, 95 % of the value of plastic packaging materials are therefore lost each year, representing $80 to $120 billion, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates.
 
In addition, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic packaging generates significant negative externalities, estimated at $40 billion per year - an amount greater than the profits of the plastic packaging industry as a whole. These negative environmental impacts mainly relate to the degradation of natural systems due to leakage of plastic packaging, particularly into the oceans, and greenhouse gas emissions during plastic production and waste incineration.
 

Insufficient current solutions

 
Manta Project - Photo © THE SEA CLEANERS
 
Cleaning up the oceans? Illusory!
A number of initiatives have emerged to clean up the seas and oceans of plastic waste, such as the Manta project of the Franco-Swiss sailor Yvan Bourgnon, who, like the Manta rays which filter the water for food, collects plastic waste from the oceans via a giant quadrimaran: "We're gonna try to do the work of a few thousand manta rays." explains Yvan Bourgnon... Or the project." Plastic Odyssey "The young Frenchmen Simon Bernard and Alexandre Dechelotte are betting on an ecological catamaran which transforms plastic into fuel thanks to a pyrolyser and propels itself thanks to plastic waste. The boat can produce 3 litres of fuel in one hour from 5 kilos of waste. Another project, " The Ocean Cleanup "The project was imagined by Boyan Slat, a 22-year-old Dutch boy who left in the summer of 2018, after raising 30 million euros, to clean up the North Pacific Gyre ("the 7th continent") with a 120-metre-long floating dam that collects the waste... Before tackling other identified accumulation areas in the oceans. Unfortunately, at the end of December 2018, part of the Ocean Cleanup Project's floating barrier has ruptured.forcing the team to take the pieces back to Hawaii.
" That's like raking an area six times the size of France with a 120-metre rake.says Jean-François Ghiglione. When the expedition returns in 2025, the oceans will have accumulated 400 times more plastic than will have been harvested. Moreover, this initiative only collects surface macro-waste, which represents only 1 % of the total plastic present in the oceans". (5)
 
All these projects have the merit of raising world awareness of the problem of plastic pollution of the oceans and the need for action. They also highlight interesting technological innovations... But they will not "clean up the oceans".
 
 
Going without plastic? Too many drawbacks!
Is a world without plastic possible today? No, answers Stéphane Bruzaud: "These materials are often criticized, but they remain essential because they have real qualities (resistance, lightness, price, etc.). Today, we can't do without plastic because this material remains indispensable for many industrial sectors such as biomedical, automotive, aeronautics or construction. » (6).
In the field of packaging, it is not easy to replace this material because alternatives to plastic have many disadvantages. Paper bags, for example, cannot be compacted as much as plastic bags. It is estimated that for the same amount of packaging, it takes about five times as many trucks to transport paper packaging as plastic packaging. Paper bags also offer significantly lower capacities in terms of strength and volume transported. Not to mention their sensitivity to moisture, rain, and any liquid that may leak inside the packaging, and their ecological balance sheet, which is not the most flattering despite some preconceived notions.
 
 
Reduce their use?
Reducing the use of single-use plastic packaging at source is one of the objectives of several recent laws and in particular the Energy Transition for Green Growth Act.
Today, single-use plastic bags distributed at checkouts are prohibited. For other bags distributed at points of sale (in the fruit and vegetable section, cheese or butchery for example), only bio-sourced bags (with a minimum vegetable matter content of 40 % in 2018-2019, 50 % in 2020 and 60 % in 2025) and compostable for domestic composting are still authorised. Disposable plastic tableware (cups, glasses, etc.) will be subject to the same conditions from 2020.
Also banned by law for the recovery of biodiversity: exfoliating scrubs containing plastic microbeads (from 2018) and plastic cotton buds (from 2020). The list of banned plastic utensils (from 2020) is also growing with the EGAlim and Pacte laws: straws, disposable plates, cutlery, drink stirring sticks, meal trays, ice cream pots, steak spades, disposable glass lids... While the European Single-Use Plastics (SUP) directive bans eight single-use products for which alternatives exist: cotton sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, food containers and cups made of EPS, stirrers and plastic balloon rods.
Overpackaging", often motivated by marketing reasons, can also be reduced. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in its advocacy for a "New Plastics Economy", also advocates, among other things, "increasing the adoption of reusable packaging, primarily in professional applications, but also in certain targeted consumer applications such as plastic bags", believing that "reuse represents a significant economic opportunity for at least 20 % of plastic packaging. » (1)
 
Work of Ghislaine Letourneur " Déchets plastiques valorisation PET - Fleur plastique bleue et rose " - Objet Art Création recyclage Waste plastic
 
Recycling? Assets but also limits
"100 % of recycled plastics by 2025". This is the ambitious objective that France set itself when it presented its "Climate Plan" in July 2017. From a circular economy perspective, it is generally considered that, whenever possible, material recycling is preferable to organic recycling (composting or methanisation), as the former keeps materials in the economy, while with the latter, plastic decomposes into elements of lesser value, such as water and CO2.
 
But practice is not as simple as theory. For example, only plastics such as PET bottles - which account for less than 10 % of the plastics consumed - can bend to the constraints of closed-loop recycling and be regenerated for identical use. Moreover, today in Europe, only half of PET is collected for recycling and only 7 % are recycled from bottle to bottle. (7).
 
"For consumer safety (risk of contamination) and technological reasons (different properties of the virgin polymer), the closed-loop recycling rate is extremely low; it can theoretically reach a maximum of 5 % of used plastics, explains Nathalie Gontard. It should be noted here that the recycling of a material is only part of a circular economy principle if the loop can be reproduced ad infinitum, which is practically the case for glass or metal. The biodegradable materials are naturally in the biological cycle of the organic matter, which ensures them an unlimited renewal (provided however that the speed of consumption remains compatible with that of production). Recycling plastic is therefore not a key to sparing our terrestrial ecosystem the potential harm of its waste, even if it can modestly contribute to delaying it. Let us not be blinded by the mirage of all-recycling, which alone cannot solve the major problem of post-use management of plastic waste. » (2)
 
In Europe, the recycling rate for plastic packaging reached 40.8 % in 2016 according to Plastics Europe's annual report, with France ranking 29th out of 30 countries, with a recycling rate of 26.2 %. In France, only plastic bottles and vials (PET and HDPE) were recyclable until now. In 2016, the French recycling rate was 26 % for all plastic packaging, reaching 55 % for bottles, but only 1 % for jars and trays or film, according to figures from the Technical Committee for the Recycling of Plastic Packaging (Cotrep).
The Citeo collection agency plans to gradually extend sorting to all plastic packaging, including pots, trays and plastic film, by 2022. At the end of 2016, a quarter of the French population was able to recycle all plastics, i.e. more than 15 million people, compared with 3.7 million in 2014, according to Cotrep.
 

Solutions for the future: biosourced and biodegradable "bioplastics"?

Despite all the efforts to improve the collection and treatment infrastructure, leakage of plastic packaging into the environment cannot be completely eliminated - and even with a leakage rate of only 1 %, around one million tonnes of plastic packaging would leave the collection system and be dumped into the environment every year.
It is therefore essential to reduce the negative environmental impact of plastic packaging that escapes from collection and treatment systems either because it is not sorted or because it accidentally leaks into the environment. This means investing in the creation of new packaging that is harmless to the environment. Plastics that would ideally be biodegradable under natural conditions in soils and aquatic environments (seas and rivers).
 

" The idea is to manufacture plastics from a resource other than oil, such as plant co-products, which at the end of their life are biodegradable, i.e. capable of decomposing naturally without remaining in the environment for years and decades. "explains Stéphane Bruzaud (7). In other words, plastics that are both "bio-sourced" and "biodegradable".
Moreover, the use of renewable raw materials helps to preserve fossil resources and reduce carbon emissions both during the use phase and during the production phase.
 
What are bio-based plastics? These are plastics made from renewable biological resources, most often plant-based. The sources of raw materials are very varied: starch and sugars are extracted from potatoes, sugar cane, beet, corn, wheat, rice, etc. Vegetable oils can come from sunflowers, flax, soybeans or even palm or olive trees. Natural fibres such as cotton, jute, hemp and wood can also be used to make bio-based plastics, as well as proteins and lipids from the animal world, such as casein, whey, fat or gelatine.
The manufacture of plastics from vegetable raw materials is carried out using either chemical processes (hydrolysis, dehydration, etc.) or biotechnological processes (fermentation, extraction, etc.). Some polymers, such as PHAs, are thus produced from plant resources by bacteria.
Some bio-based polymers have a structure identical to that of fossil-based polymers (such as PE and PET from sugar cane for example) while others have an innovative structure, different from that of existing petrochemical polymers (such as PLA from starch). (8). 
 
These biosourced and biodegradable bioplastics are the subject of much research. If today, the law sets the minimum biosourced content of single-use plastic bags (30 % from 1 January 2017, 40 % from 1 January 2018, 50 % from 1 January 2020 and 60 % from 1 January 2025), it aims to design bioplastics 100 % biosourced and biodegradable. These materials are now finding industrial applications. In particular, they represent an interesting solution for the organic recycling of bio-waste.
 
But watch out! The term "bioplastic" can be confusing because it refers to materials of different nature and properties. The prefix "bio" can indeed refer either to the biological origin of the plastic ("biosourced") or to its end of life ("biodegradable") - and even sometimes to its use in the medical field ("biomedical", "biocompatible").
However, some biosourced plastics, i.e. those made from renewable biological resources - most often vegetable resources - are not biodegradable, i.e. they cannot be assimilated by micro-organisms. And conversely, some plastics from petrochemicals (therefore not biosourced) are biodegradable.
Finally, a third category of plastics combine both properties and are both biosourced and biodegradable, such as polymers based on potato starch, starch or cellulose, PLA (polylactic acid), PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates) or bio-PBS (poly(butylene succinate). These are of course the most interesting. Moreover, the French definition, published in the Official Journal of 22 December 2016, reserves the term "bioplastic" for these materials that are both biosourced and biodegradable.
Bioplastics" therefore includes a large number of materials that are either biosourced, biodegradable or both. It is for this reason that the term "bioplastic" cannot be sufficient on its own and that it is advisable to specify, each time one uses this word, which is the origin (biosourced or not) and the end of life (biodegradable or not) of the plastic.
 
Compostable bioplastics, circular by nature
Compostable bioplastics are part of a logic of disappearance of waste. Nathalie Gontard explains: "To meet environmental challenges, there is not one solution, but solutions, and compostable bioplastics are one of them. They are naturally part of the biological cycle of organic matter, which ensures their unlimited renewal (provided that the speed of consumption remains compatible with the speed of production). It is perfectly circular. "
 
Compostable bioplastics, a support for the development of bio-waste collection
Packaging made of these materials can be a valuable aid in the implementation of bio-waste collection encouraged by the Green Growth Energy Transition Act. For example, "... to be concrete, a home-delivered meal package can be disposed of with the meal remains in a bio-waste bin for industrial composting by a community "explains Nathalie Gontard. Another example, a compostable bioplastic bag can be used to collect kitchen waste and vegetable waste and be recovered by industrial or domestic composting depending on the collection system set up by the local authority.
 
Compostable bioplastics, an organic end-of-life product
"The challenge is to remove what nature takes decades or centuries to eliminate... "says Stéphane Bruzaud.
" Biodegradable materials open up new end-of-life options such as biodegradability, compostability or anaerobic digestion (methanisation)", adds Nathalie Gontard. Biosourced polymers that are biodegradable under natural conditions (starch, PHA, etc.), are materials that guarantee from their conception (eco-design), that they will be biodegraded like organic matter within a period of time compatible with human activities. "
The organic recovery of biosourced and biodegradable bioplastics is therefore a solution that can be perfectly integrated, alongside recycling and reuse, in the new end-of-life economy of plastics that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for example, is calling for.
 

What are the benefits of biosourced and biodegradable bioplastics?

The first interest of biodegradable bioplastics is of course to limit the ecological footprint of the materials. It particularly concerns single-use objects, whose use is very short (sometimes a few minutes), but whose life before biodegradation is very long (at least several decades, or even several centuries). Objects that are also among those most likely to end their life in the oceans and have adverse effects on the environment. Packaging and plastic bags are therefore at the forefront.
 
 
Compostable materials are also of interest for plastic packaging that cannot be reused or recycled. This category accounts for at least half of plastic packaging and nearly 30 % of the total market. (1). This is particularly the case for small packaging (about 10 % of the market, and 35 to 50 % of the total amount of packaging), such as bags, peel-off films, lids, straw wrappers, candy wrappers and small jars, which often escape collection or sorting systems and do not follow a reuse or recycling path.
This is also the case for "multi-material" packaging (about 13 % on the market) and of course packaging contaminated by nutrients "with a view to returning organic matter to the soil and promoting the conservation of natural capital". (1). For example, fast-food packaging made of compostable materials could be disposed of, with the remaining contents, in an organic bin. This would increase the volume of organic materials that can be recovered through composting or methanisation. Compostable materials could also help limit the impact of unintentional leakage into the environment.
 
Biodegradable materials can also provide solutions in the field of films for agricultural mulching and other products for agriculture, horticulture and forestry (string, clips, etc.). Products that are also single-use and short-lived, but difficult and expensive to collect from the fields and transport to recycling plants. As a result, today many plastic objects, used in significant quantities in the agricultural sector, end their life in the ground.
 
Photo ©WWF
Stéphane Bruzaud also stresses the interest of biodegradable bioplastics in the marine environment, such as PHAs, for all products likely to end up in the sea, such as fishing nets, fishing line, traps, etc. « We are currently working on biodegradable plastics that would be directly used for fishing applications that could be lost at sea. "says the researcher. (9).
For Stéphane Bruzaud, everything related to the formulation of liquid ingredients (cosmetics, detergents, laundry, etc.) also represents a field of application for biodegradable bioplastics. Because there are, inside these products, many polymers that are evacuated by waste water, are not filtered by treatment plants, and contaminate our seas and oceans for a long time. This concerns, for example, exfoliating microparticles, which are now prohibited from sale if they are not bio-sourced and biodegradable. (9).

 
"But this is not to be naïve or to claim that biodegradable bioplastics will solve the problem of plastic pollution of the oceans.says Stéphane Bruzaud. For this is primarily due to a lack of citizenship. It is primarily a problem of behaviour and waste collection. And it is obviously not the biodegradable bioplastics which will solve this problem of behavior. IIn particular, the confusion in the minds of many consumers will have to be cleared up, as they may think, "It's a biodegradable plastic, so I can get rid of it without worrying about sorting it". Because if it is abandoned in nature, even a biodegradable bag, whose degradation time is drastically shortened compared to that of a traditional plastic bag, will not biodegrade instantly and will have plenty of time to have harmful effects on the environment, especially on birds and marine animals. " (9)

 

In conclusion, the importance of consumer/consumer-player behaviour and information is essential. The WWF alert if we keep this up,"there will be twice as much plastic waste in the oceans by 2030. » 
Do not throw away, reduce, reuse, recycle, compost... As with other materials, all the solutions considered to reduce plastic pollution are also based on the adoption of virtuous behaviour. Awareness raising, education and information of citizens must therefore be at the heart of all policies to better manage the end-of-life of plastics, and in particular to optimise sorting at source and collection of packaging.
This is a key element in particular for the development of biosourced and biodegradable "bioplastics", whose most relevant end of life is domestic or industrial composting.
 
Nor should we forget the need to organise sorting, collection and recovery channels, particularly for bio-waste.
The success of recovery strategies, whether material (recycling), organic (composting preceded or not by methanisation) or energy (incineration with energy production), depends primarily on the quality of sorting and collection. Citizens must have access to efficient channels.
This is particularly the case for bio-waste, which can be collected with its biodegradable packaging, as is the case in many European cities and in some French cities, unfortunately, to date, too few.
 
 
(1) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Towards a New Plastics Economy, report presented to the World Economic Forum in 2016.
(2) Nathalie Gontard, Déchets plastiques : la dangereuse illusion du tout-recyclage, The conversation, 28 January 2018.
(3) Independent scientists :
- Nathalie Gontard is an INRA research director at the "Agropolymer Engineering and Emerging Technologies" unit in Montpellier. She is also a specialist in food and packaging sciences. She was awarded the "Stars of Europe" trophy in the "Environment, climate change" category in 2015 and received the Laurier Défi Scientifique 2017 from INRA for her work on the manufacture of bio-degradable food packaging from food industry by-products. It is currently coordinating the European project "No Agro-Waste" (NOAW 2020), "Zero Waste in Agriculture", a project supported by the European Union and involving 32 countries, including China, which aims to convert agro-waste into bio-energy, bio-fertilizers and biodegradable bioplastics (PHA).
- Stéphane Bruzaud is a professor at the Université Bretagne Sud and a researcher at the Institut de Recher- che Dupuy de Lôme (IRDL), specialising in materials engineering. Based in Lorient, he coordinates research on biopolymer engineering and the manufacture of bioplastics from biotechno-logical processes. He is also developing research on the evaluation of environmental pollution by plastics and has participated in the scientific study of Tara Méditerranée, aimed at better understanding the impacts of plastics on the Mediterranean ecosystem.
It is also piloting the BlueEcoPHA project, supported by ADEME and involving industrialists from the Grand Ouest, which aims to produce a biosourced and biodegradable bioplastic (PHA) on a local scale from co-products of the agri-food industries and using marine bacteria.
- Jean-François Ghiglione is a CNRS research director at the Banyuls Oceanological Observatory. He coordinates the Ecotoxicology and marine microbial meta-bolic engineering team in the Microbial Oceanography Laboratory (LOMIC, UMR 7621). He is a member of the management committee of the GDR Polymers and Oceans and co-founder of the company Plastic@Sea.
He is the coordinator of several scientific programs on the fate, biodegradation and toxicity of plastics in the marine environment and is the scientific leader of the Tara Microplastics 2019 mission.
 
(4) Two industrial sponsors of the report : 
- SPHERE Group SPHERE : a French family group founded in 1976, SPHERE is the European leader in household packaging, and is present in three markets: general public, professional and local authorities. The group is also one of the world's largest producers of biodegradable and compostable resins. Its objectives: to reduce the volume of virgin plastic used in its products and replace them with recycled materials from the circular economy; to use biosourced raw materials; and to develop new biodegradable and compostable materials. The group markets and produces: garbage bags, fruit and vegetable bags, freezer bags, film and paper for food contact, aluminium trays and rolls, etc.
- KANEKA BELGIUM NV is a subsidiary of KANEKA CORPORATION, a technologically advanced chemical company with headquarters in Osaka and Tokyo, Japan. KANEKA offers a wide range of products and has its own global production and marketing organization. The business activities cover a wide range of markets, from chemicals, functional plastics, food, health products, synthetic fibres to electrical and electronic materials.
 
(5) Jean-François Ghiglione, Plastic pollution of the oceans: how to reverse the situation? Banyuls-sur-Mer Oceanological Observatory, 5 December 2018 (videoconference).
(6) Stéphane Bruzaud, Innovative materials to limit the impact of plastics on the marine environment, La Maison de la mer, Lorient, 28 May 2018 (videoconference).
(7) Nathalie Gontard, Valérie Guillard, Sébastien Gaucel, Claudio Fornaciari, Hélène Angellier-Coussy, Patrice Buche, The Next Generation of Sustainable Food Packaging to Preserve Our Environment in a Circular Economy Context, Frontiers in Nutrition, December 4, 2018.
(8) ADEME, Les plastiques biosourcés, Les Fiches techniques de l'ADEME, September 2013.

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(9) Stéphane Bruzaud, interview conducted for this information report, 27 February 2019.
 

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