The Curious Case of the Banana Sticker
When you throw your banana peel into the food waste bin, do you remove the sticker first? The humble fruit sticker – a teeny-tiny piece of plastic – how could something so small create problems for the management of waste? This conundrum was one of many considered during an online UK event hosted by PrintCity colleagues, Carly Fletcher, Sheryl Lee and Alan Dempsey, on behalf of the BIO-PLASTICS EUROPE Project.
The online event titled: Future opportunities and limitations of the bio-based plastic market from the UK perspective, was held on Wednesday 25th November 2020 and introduced the BIO-PLASTICS EUROPE project to over twenty interested participants. With the help of guest speakers; David Newman (Managing Director, Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association UK) and Dr Adam Read (External Affairs Director, Suez Recycling and Recovery UK), the event also explored what opportunities and barriers the future may hold for the bio-based plastic market in the UK.
The world we live in is confusing. Everything is rapidly changing, and at a rate not before seen in human history. Our current linear systems of production and consumption have led to grand societal challenges such as top-soil degradation and climate change. This event explored the contribution that bio-based and biodegradable plastics could have in addressing these issues. Across the EU and in the UK, there are moves towards increasing the amount of food waste that is collected, composted and returned back to the soil. David Newman argued that the use of innovative packaging, made from biodegradable plastics, could have a role to play in reducing plastic contamination of treated food waste and in ensuring long-term farming productivity. Indeed, biodegradable plastics can act as a lubricant for replenishing soil with organic carbon.
But, is the infrastructure in place to deal with these changing materials. Thinking back to the banana, obviously the peel will be collected as food waste, but what about the sticker? Should that stay on the banana and go into the food waste bin, should it be separated and go into the residual bin, or as it is plastic after all, should it go into the recycling bin? What if that sticker was to be made from a biodegradable plastic? Well then as a biodegradable plastic it could go in with the food waste, acting as a lubricant for soil replenishment. But, are the food waste facilities ready for an influx of biodegradable banana stickers? Not today, no! As the facilities have been optimised to deal with purely organic wastes, and the introduction of biodegradable plastics may require more treatment time or different conditions.
Under the current system that has been optimised to recycle steel/tin cans, PET bottles and glass, there is a trade-off between how quickly society switches to new materials and how quickly facilities can be adapted to cope with the influx of these new materials. And of course, success will be dependent on the engagement of stakeholders through the entire lifecycle of a material. Dr Adam Read points out that even if 90% of people, recycle 90% of the right thing, 90% of the time, in a waste system that is 90% efficient and feeds into a reprocessing system that turns 90% of inputs into a good product, then an overall recycling rate of only 57% can be achieved, highlighting the uphill struggle that the waste management sector faces.
Reflecting on the event, there are ample opportunities across the UK for the increased uptake of bio-based and biodegradable plastic, particularly with respect to food packaging. However, it is clear that clarity regarding policy, information and action is needed to address the confusion that surround bio-based and biodegradable plastics. Finally, transition takes time, and while we have started on the path towards circularity and the 4thindustrial Revolution, we need the time to understand how the cogs of the current system work, time for innovation and ambition to become reality and time to facilitate the actions required across the value chain.
To find out more…
To access the slide deck and summarised minutes of this meeting, please visit: https://bioplasticseurope.eu/downloads/project-events
BIO-PLASTICS EUROPE is one of many ongoing projects that research staff at PrintCity are involved with, all of which align with Circular Economy principles. Across an interdisciplinary team of researchers, technicians and academic staff, PrintCity are involved in projects that are seeking to educate waste citizens of the future (Erasmus+), turn waste from single-use plastics into 3D-printing filament (TRANSFORM-CE), recycle construction waste through the 3D printing of concrete into street furniture (CIRMAP) and promote the use of repair cafes to prolong the lifespan of consumer electronics (SHAREPAIR).
BIO-PLASTICS EUROPE has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 860407. To find out more visit: https://bioplasticseurope.eu/.[ssba]
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