The BIOCOMPLACK Project attempts to respond to the industrial and technological challenge of developing active and more sustainable packaging. It is labelled “active” as enhanced barrier properties them into real actors for product preservation, increasing product durability, keeping its quality, while reporting to the consumer on content preservation conditions.
Developing packaging by means of bioplastics provides this project with high relevance alongside a social responsibility component in our modern society. It is becoming increasingly indispensable to move towards a new waste management and disposal policy to meet the global challenge of replacing old types of plastic packaging with recyclable and biodegradable materials. It should not be ignored that plastic packaging (whether rigid or flexible) makes up 40% of all packaging used worldwide. That is why it is essential to develop it from sustainable resources that assure a similar performance to that found in traditional petroleum-based plastics.
Thus, BIOCOMPLACK, by resorting extensively to applied research and establishing tight collaboration ties among entities and industries all over Europe, truly provides an answer for three overarching problems regarding bioplastics: those related to legislation, market and a respect for the environment.
At the regulatory level, it is true that local and national legislations are increasingly imposing restrictions or even completely banning the use of petroleum-based plastic packaging. Thus, there are great opportunities for alternative products from bioplastics. In 2015, the City of New York banned the use of expanded polystyrene and San Francisco did the same with plastic water bottles. Much earlier, in 2007, it had imposed a ban on the use of plastic carrier bags. Closer to us, in France, there will be a ban on non-compostable carrier bags from 2016. This is no trivial matter, bearing in mind that 17 billion plastic carrier bags are used per year, half of which alongside lots of other packaging, end up being dumped, taking hundreds of years to degrade, as well as being ingested by birds and sea-creatures. It is a proven and widely-known fact that experts have detected huge amounts of packaging flotsam in all oceans, which end up in the seabed and back into the food chain.
Other countries are moving in the same direction regarding one-use-only plastic packaging items. Even the European Parliament has taken steps in this respect. In 2014, it requested that by 2019 the EU countries bring down the use of this type of bags by at least an 80% as to the 2010 figures, a year in which a European citizen made an average use of 200 plastic bags. Countries will have to limit the number of packaging items per person and the fact that these are handed over, free of charge, at selling outlets.
Bioplastics is a sector undergoing a clear development and paradoxically, Europe, despite being at the cutting-edge of research in this field, could lag behind other regions such as Asia or the USA as for its production capacities. Those regions have invested more heavily in measures towards the rapid introduction of these materials into their markets, which show a more rapid growth as a result. Most projects are being introduced in countries such as Thailand, India and China and it is estimated that, by the year 2019, about 80% of bioplastics in the world will be produced in Asia. This is also an opportunity for Europe, where bioplastics production is forecast to grow by 300% by 2018. The European Commission reinforced this growth by designating bioplastics as one of the emerging and innovation sectors to get legislative support (lead market).
In this field, a consortium composed by 4 industries and 1 university will ensure that Europe has a word on the bioplastic market, by bringing to the market a new bioplastic packaging.
The Biocomplack Project has a direct impact on a third field of great importance: the preservation and respect of the environment. Among other reasons, bioplastics help us reduce our dependence on limited fossil resources, foreseeably to become more expensive in the years to come, by replacing them with other renewables such as annual maize or sugar beet crops, or perennial crops such as manioc or sugar cane. The use of this biomass to create products based on bioplastics cuts down greenhouse effect gases and can be turned into renewable energy by resorting to recycling at the end of the product´s useful-life cycle. As a result, it can be asserted that one of the main benefits from bioplastics is that they allow us to put an end to the cycle and increase resource efficiency.
The raw materials (corn-starch, sugar cane…) to make this material, feed on biomass. This material (polylactic acid - PLA) is transformed into a useful product, from which, at the end of its useful lifespan and during its disposal phase and organic recycling, energy is recovered and new biomass is obtained. This organic recycling (composting) also enables us to obtain valuable biomass and humus for plant growth and closes the cycle once more. Thus, the use of bioplastics can notably increase waste management efficiency all over Europe.