Plastics|SA Hosts talks on bioplastics

Plastics SA recently hosted a free-to-attend seminar on bioplastics at its head office in Midrand, during which renowned expert on the topic, Prof. Dr Christian Bonten from the Stuttgart University in Germany, presented his findings. Prof. Bonten visited South Africa as guest of Plastics|SA and was also one of the keynote speakers at the Association’s African Marine Debris Summit. Prof. Dr Bonten explained that the term ‘bioplastics’ refers to a variety of materials, including biodegradable plastics and bio-based plastics, which are materials made from renewable resources like sugar cane or starch. He noted, however, that not all biodegradable plastics are made from natural materials. ‘In the same way, not all bioplastics are biodegradable,’ he explained. At the same talk, Prof. Linda Godfrey, a principal researcher of the CSIR, shared information on the possible impacts of bioplastics on South Africa’s waste and secondary resources economy at the event. ‘About 90 per cent of waste in South Africa is still going to landfill. We estimate that the value of resources the country is losing to landfills is around R17 billion per annum,’ Godfrey explained. ‘These materials could be recovered and reintroduced into the country’s manufacturing economy,’ she said. Godfrey went on to explain that various factors have created the perception that the country should be using more biodegradable products. ‘People look at the high percentage of materials are going to local landfills and automatically assume that biodegradable packaging material will breakdown in the environment before they cause long term impacts. Information received from Plastics Europe does indeed suggest that there are certain niche markets where biodegradable plastics make sense, such as in agriculture and horticulture where packaging and content is very similar,’ Godfrey said. ‘The concept of a circular economy is one where we create products that we can recycle and return back into the manufacturing sector.’ She noted that the major growth is around bio-based substrates that are sourced from plant materials, but can be treated and recycled in exactly the same way as traditional fossil-based packaging. She recommends that packaging manufacturers do a thorough lifecycle analysis of products using bioplastics to identify the sustainability of these materials in comparison to tradition substrates. Some of the global drivers behind the use of bioplastics include: •The price of oil •Resource scarcity •The opportunity to establish new ‘green’ economic sectors •Public concern and interest in the environment and climate change •The end-of-life of landfills •Environmental policies that promote the use of biobased materials Commenting on the topic, Plastics SA executive director Anton Hanekom said that lot of confusion still existed in the marketplace around some of the environmental claims made by the manufacturers of degradable plastics. ‘The general perception is that degradable plastics will dissolve and disappear over time versus conventional plastics that will be around forever. Unfortunately, it is not that simple,’ Hanekom said. Whilst industry leaders agree that there are certain uses and applications that could potentially be ideally suited to degradable plastics, both Plastics SA and SAPRO have warned that it introducing bioplastics to the country’s burgeoning and well-developed recycling industry, would contaminate the recycling streams with disastrous and costly consequences. Of special concern is the impact degradable materials will have once this plastic is recycled and used in second and successive applications. ‘Biodegradable plastic should not be seen as a quick-fix solution to our country’s litter problem. Instead, we are calling for more money and resources to be spent on educating the public about recycling and putting proper recycling infrastructures in place to support the plastics recycling industry has in recent years become an integral part of South Africa’s economy. Thanks to plastics recycling, 47 000 South Africans found an informal form of income and employment thanks to the 280 000 tons of plastics that were collected and recycled last year. To this end, Plastics SA is committed to achieving its objective of sending Zero plastic to landfill by 2030,’ Hanekom concluded. For more information visit