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Why better bioplastics can’t end the plastic crisis

Plastics made from plants are increasingly popular, but even if they can be composted or recycled, making sure they actually are is challenging.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Jamie Bakos
April 01, 2021 - 5:30 AM

Plastic products made from corn, wheat stubble, and other plants could soon become more common on Canadian farms and supermarket shelves. 

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau last week announced $4.5 million in funding to support five companies trying to reduce the amount of plastic waste farms send to landfills. Most are developing bioplastics — plastics made from plants instead of fossil fuels — that can be composted or recycled using new techniques.

Yet, despite being made from renewable resources, researchers doubt that making better bioplastics alone will be enough to end Canada’s plastic crisis.   

“With any of these investments in new technologies … you just need to look at the system and understand them from a lifecycle perspective,” said Belinda Li, an environmental engineer at Simon Fraser University who specializes in bioplastics and food. “You need to look from the very beginning — what the raw materials are — all the way to the end when you’re collecting (the plastics) and needing to process them.”

Canadians dispose of about 3.3 million tonnes of plastic each year, according to a 2019 study commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada, and almost all of it goes to landfills: Only nine per cent, or about 305,000 tonnes, is recycled.

Taken alone, agriculture’s contribution is relatively small, with farms generating about one per cent of Canada’s plastic waste. But when evaluated alongside the food that farms produce, the impact is much larger: Packaging, including food packaging, is responsible for over a third of the plastic Canadians dispose of.

The new federal funding supports companies developing new bioplastics that will, in theory, be more easily recycled or composted, reducing the amount of plastic in Canadian landfills.

For instance, Titan Clean Energy Projects Corporation was awarded $1 million to create bioplastic fruit and vegetable containers made from wheat chaff and other agricultural residue. The company uses pyrolysis — a chemical process that heats carbon-based materials like chaff or plastic to remove hydrogen and oxygen, leaving nothing but carbon — to create plant-based plastic products. Once finished their useful life, the plastic containers, which are still in development, can be pyrolyzed again and transformed into new products, explained company CEO Jamie Bakos.

Other funding recipients include projects aiming to create a compostable bioplastic mulch, biodegradable seed trays and mulch films, and a straw-based replacement for polystyrene packaging. Cleanfarms, an organization trying to reduce the amount of waste farms produce, also received money to help farmers recycle more.

While those efforts are worthwhile, Li doubts that technology alone can solve the problem.

“One of the missing pieces I see (with) any of these new products is that it can work on the front end — they’re able to create these materials — (and) it can work on the back end,” with some companies able to effectively recycle their products.

The problem, she explained, lies in the “missing middle.” That's the period when plastic products are circulating among consumers — from farmers using plastic mulch to families buying cherry tomatoes in plastic containers — and are beyond the reach of plastic producers. With waste disposal in Canada mostly managed by municipalities, it is common for plastics that technically can be recycled or composted to end up in the trash because the necessary facilities aren’t available.  

“(For) any type of investment into the technology side, you have to have the same investment of the same consideration for how you’re going to make that work within the human system,” she said. “With this (funding), are we going to have the associated investment for municipal infrastructure to be able to manage the collection … so that these materials can go in a very clean way back to where (they) might get remanufactured?”

That kind of co-ordination is lacking nationwide, she said.

“(The) projects announced … will advance the testing and development of innovative ideas for bioplastics; however, streamlining waste flows is not a direct project objective,” said a spokesperson for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in a statement. “Environment and Climate Change Canada is working with provinces, territories, and other stakeholders to better manage compostable plastic products, including considering infrastructure needs and potential standards.”

Still, those changes might not come soon enough, negating the potential environmental benefits of newly developed and possibly more-sustainable bioplastics, she said.

“My take on it is to be a bit cautious and to use … the precautionary principle (to ask): ‘Is this going to create more net harm?’”  

— This story was originally published by the National Observer.

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