THE BLOG

Why Plastic Waste Is Such a Problem and the Future of Bioplastics

28/05/2013 15:50 BST | Updated 28/07/2013 10:12 BST

Waste plastic has become a massive concern, not only in the UK, but globally. Worldwide production and consumption of plastics has increased by 10% year on year from 5 million tonnes in 1950 to 245 million tonnes in 2006, and since then this figure has been increasing. In the UK it is estimated that 5 million tonnes of plastic alone is being used every year, and over a third of this is used for packaging. A Green Paper released by the European Commission in March of this year drew attention to the fact that in 2008 nearly half of all plastic waste generated in the European Union was sent to landfill (48.7%), and only 21.3% of plastic waste was recycled. The amount of plastic being sent to landfill is estimated to be the equivalent in energy terms of burying 12 million tonnes of crude oil every year. Even some 'green' plastics use oil based petrochemicals in the manufacturing process to make them stronger and more durable.

It is still not that easy for consumers to recycle all of their plastic waste though, neither is it clear to many what kind of plastics are acceptable to be put in a council recycling bin, and which plastics have to be taken to recycling centres. Plastics are clearly labelled with the standardised plastic symbols so it is clear what type of plastic your products are made from, but more often than not councils will not accept types 3 (PVC), 5 (Polypropylene), 6 (Polystyrene), and 7 (other plastics). Some of these plastics have to be taken to recycling centres, but type 3 (PVC) plastics are not recyclable at all.

There is also a large amount of plastic that doesn't end up being recycled or sent to a landfill, but ends up polluting the natural environment. One particularly harrowing example is the 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch', a gigantic mass of plastic and other waste materials that has formed gradually as a result of oceanic currents. Despite what many believe the patch is not a massive garbage island, it's not even easily visible as the plastic has been broken down into even smaller polymers suspended in the upper water column. These polymers attract chlorinated dioxins which are eaten by marine life, and in turn can enter the human food chain potentially causing serious health issues. So the problem of plastic waste is not just affecting our environment, it is affecting our health too.

Positively a Southampton based company called Biome Bioplastics is in the process of developing a 100% naturally sourced and biodegradable plastic. The company is trying to replace the oil based chemicals currently used in the manufacturing process with a chemical derived from lignin, a complex hydrocarbon found in the cell walls of plants. This is such an exciting prospect because lignin is so widely available; it is actually a waste product itself from the pulp and paper industry. When lignin is broken down, by enzymes found in the stomachs of termites strangely enough, a chemical is produced that could potentially be used as a replacement for oil based chemicals.

Hopefully the process of extracting the required chemical can be realised in a cost effective manner on an industrial scale. As it stands using petrochemicals over their bioplastic counterpart is two to four times cheaper for manufacturers, but the chemical derived from lignin could potentially replace the petrochemicals currently being used. Not only would this make the plastic more environmentally friendly, but production costs would be significantly lower. The research has also been backed by the Government's Technology Strategy Board with a £150,000 grant, so we might not have to wait too long until a 100% naturally sourced biodegradable plastic is on the market.