Plant-based plastics 'no panacea', Greens warn

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SPECIAL REPORT / The world's largest drinks companies, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, have laid down ambitious plans to roll out 100% plant-based plastic bottles across the globe, triggering warnings from environmentalists who see a parallel with the ongoing controversy over biofuels.

Food and drinks companies are engaged in a global race for leadership on plant-based renewable plastics.

In March last year, PepsiCo announced it had developed the world's first PET plastic bottle made entirely from renewable plant-based resources and would pilot production of a new 100% recyclable bottle in 2012.

The company said it intends to move directly to full-scale commercialisation after successful completion of the pilot.

Pepsi's bottle is made from bio-based raw materials, including switch grass, pine bark and corn husks. In the future, the company said it expects to add orange peels, potato peels, oat hulls and other agricultural byproducts from its foods business into the manufacture of its "green" bottle.

Coca-Cola responded by stepping up its own research efforts. Last December, it announced a multi-million dollar partnership agreement with three leading biotechnology companies to accelerate development of the first commercial solutions for next-generation bottles made 100% from plant-based raw materials.

The big challenge now is to roll out the commercialisation of 100% plant-based bottles on a global scale.

"You can already produce it in a few hundred examples in a laboratory," said Ulrike Sapiro, Environmental Sustainability Director at the Coca-Cola Company. "But if you want a few million or billion, you need to have a commercially viable solution. And that's where the big challenge is right now."

"There is of course a battle between corporations on leadership to get to the market plant-based PET material as quickly as possible," she told EurActiv in a telephone interview.

Tiny market share

In the long run, industry officials believe there is simply no alternative to bioplastics, as fossil fuel resources eventually dry out.

"Compared to the total plastics market, it is of course still a rather niche market, but it is indeed a fast-growing market," says Hasso von Pogrell, from European Bioplastics, an industry association which counts global chemical companies such DuPont and BASF among its members.

"Unlike in the energy sector, where, apart from biomass, you have different options to substitute fossil resources for the production of energy – like water, wind and sun –  plastics can divert to biomass only," von Pogrell told EurActiv in an interview.

Global production capacities are forecast to grow from 1 million tonnes to 6 million tonnes annually by 2016, according to von Pogrell. In market share, this would still be tiny, from less than 1% to about 2%, he said.

Coke leading the way

Leading growth in the market is the packaging sector. Coca-Cola for instance, is already using plastic bottles that are up to 30% made from plants.

Coke's trademark PlantBottle product was first launched in Denmark and the United States in 2009, with other countries like France following suit in November last year.

Today, the product is being used for 50cl bottles in 10 European countries – Denmark, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden, Germany, Spain and Serbia. Non-European countries include the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Chile.

"In the future, we want to achieve a bottle that is made only from renewable and recycled material," Sapiro said.

However, this requires further research as full plant-based bottles do not have the same properties as PET. High-density polyethylene (HDPE), for instance, can be 100% sourced from plants and is often used for juice bottles, Sapiro explained. But the plastic is a bit more rough, has a colouration to it, and is less transparent than PET, making it less appealing to consumers.

"People might be able to tell you that they are able to produce bottles which are 100% plant-based. But then it is not PET," Sapiro claimed, referring to Pepsi's announcement.

Sustainability concerns

However, there is also mounting concern about the environmental impact this might have.

Robbie Blake, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, sees a parallel between bioplastics and the ongoing controversy surrounding biofuels.

"Bioplastics raise exactly the same controversy about our over-consumption of land, and the damaging style of intensive plantation agriculture used to mass-produce the raw materials," Blake told EurActiv in emailed comments. 

"At large scales – same as biofuels –, bioplastics and other bio-based products risk competing for land with food, causing indirect land use changes, meaning more deforestation and conversion of wild areas into ploughed fields."

Hasso von Pogrell doesn't deny that increased production of bioplastics will have an effect on land use.

"There is of course a correlation, the more bioplastics you use, the more crops you will need to grow at the end of the day to make them," von Pogrell said.

But he believes the impact should remain limited. Even if the entire plastics market were to switch to bioplastics, only 5% of arable land would be needed to meet that demand, on a global level, he said.

Besides, plant-based bottles can be recycled and part of the production could rely on food waste, which represents about 25% of Europe's food consumption, potentially reducing the environmental impact further.

"I don't see it happening very quickly, it will take a lot of time and there are a lot of industries in the conventional plastics manufacturing which are not going to give up without a fight," von Pogrell said.

No green panacea

Even environmentalists agree that bioplastics and biofuels should be distinguished.

"There are obvious differences," Blake said. "Biofuels were driven clearly by government policy – targets and subsidies – under the pretence of reducing greenhouse gases. This is not the case for bioplastics." 

However, he cautioned that the biofuels controversy can be seen as a precursor to the debate about the wider 'bio-economy'. As with biofuels, there is a tendency to see bio-plastics as a "green panacea" until the wider implications for land use and agriculture are analysed, he warned.

"If, as FoEE maintains, there is not enough land available for biofuels, then it's difficult to see that, in addition, there will be enough land to supply our plastics on a large scale too," Blake said.

Besides, bioplastics have their own issues, including whether they are truly bio-degradable, and their potential to release harmful toxins into the environment.

"Other solutions for our insatiable appetite for plastic exist like reusable bottles, bags and packaging, recycling, and consuming less in the first place,” Blake pointed out.

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