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A new study demonstrates: substitution of petrochemical plastic with bioplastics creates other problems

11 August 2020
  • It is technically possible to replace all the petrochemical packaging with bioplastics.
  • Packaging substitution with bioplastics would significantly increase land and water use.
  • Currant global bioplastic production is not sufficient to meet European packaging demand.
  • Reduction of packaging demand is required.

A new study “The Unintended Side Effects of Bioplastics: Carbon, Land and Water Footprints” conducted by a multinational team of environmental scientists demonstrate that replacing all petrochemical plastic packaging with bioplastics is not feasible as this would lead to burden-shifting of environmental impacts. The assessment carried out in the study shows that increased use of bioplastics will result in significant growth of land and water use.

These findings confront the currently often mentioned view that shift to bioplastics – plastic that is produced using biomass and not fossil resources – is a necessary move toward a circular economy, a way to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and reduce environmental impacts. Instead, the authors of the study have calculated, that, although it is technically possible to substitute almost every conventional plastic material, in Europe it would require a minimum of 7,4 million ha of land that is larger than the total area of Ireland. Regarding water consumption, the shift to bioplastics in the EU alone would demand at least 45 billion m3 of water that is equivalent to almost a fifth of the EU’s total freshwater withdrawal. The impacts on carbon emissions are less dramatic but show high levels of uncertainty.

On the global level around 170 millions of tons of plastic is used for packaging purposes annually comprising 44% of global plastic consumption. Substituting these petrochemical plastics with bioplastics would require more than a half of current global corn production – 613 million tons, twelve times current castor beans production – 1,8 million tons and around 21,3 million tons of wood. The land area needed for the production of this biomass would be 61 million ha and also at least 388,8 billion m3 of water would be used.

“In 2019 the global production of bioplastics was below 1% of the global plastics production and constituted 2,43 million tons. The largest share of bioplastics is produced in Asia (45%), Europe comes next with 25%. This number is expected to grow as the EU has committed to transition to a circular economy. Therefore it is of crucial importance to assess all the aspects of bioplastics in order to avoid an insidious solution with potentially damaging side effects”, explains Dr. Kuishuang Feng of University of Maryland, co-author of the study.

“In today’s world where we use plastics everywhere – from food packaging to medical materials, switching to bioplastics might seem a logical and tempting solution that would allow to continue business as usual, however, replacement strategies do not always work, and in case of packaging it is clear that we need to look at ways to use less. That is the only option to stop plastic pollution and move toward a low carbon future”, concludes Prof. Klaus Hubacek from University of Groningen.

“To replace EU plastic packaging with bioplastic would require more than the equivalent of the total land area of Ireland and about a fifth of the EU's freshwater withdrawal. So this is obvious that to decrease environmental impacts, we will have to dematerialize our consumption patterns”, added Dr. Janis Brizga from University of Latvia.

The research is based on a review of life cycle impact assessment studies and additional calculations to assess the footprint of the substation. The study analyses the market and costs of bioplastics, substitution potential and it’s environmental impacts.`

The full paper "The Unintended Side Effects of Bioplastics: Carbon, Land and Water Footprints"


Last modified:11 August 2020 12.02 p.m.

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