Has been published Thursday, December 8, 2011 Next »

Reality Tempers Goals & Predictions for Sustainable Plastics

Varying estimates of biodegradable or bio-based plastics growth are often quoted in the industry from various new studies. The rates of future growth are usually estimated to be quite high, though bioplastics will remain a small fraction of all plastics used for some time. Similarly, theoretical projections about higher recycling rates sound promising, except for the obstacles encountered.


For example, one recent study reportedly states that global demand for biodegradable and plant-based plastics will quadruple by 2013, while another, less optimistic report expects this demand growth only to triple by 2015. These are both pretty fast growth rates.


But this growth faces some obstacles, which were discussed at Resin Technology Inc.’s 2011 Executive Forum as as reported by Plastics News. Experts observed that the real demand for bioplastics has been hindered by economics and “startup issues,” and will more likely be driven by niche consumer interest and regulatory changes, such as bans of conventional plastic packaging.  So will we check the 2011 fast-growth estimates in two to four years only to find that they were way too optimistic?


With recycling, there’s often similar optimism, and obstacles. A good case is Coca-Cola, which has in the past focused on meeting a goal of 10% recycled content in its bottles, but which has been stuck for years at a rate that’s about half of that figure. (And yet still the company reportedly continues to oppose bottle-deposit laws that would make more rPET available.) Now it seems that Coke has switched gears and is focusing on using more of its partially bio-based  “PlantBottle”.


There are many overall societal reasons to strive for more waste recycling – it has many potential benefits, including energy savings, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and more job opportunities. A recent study by European Association of Plastics Recycling and Recovery Organizations reportedly projects that 100% of all plastic packaging waste in Europe could be diverted from landfills by 2020 (currently only about 30% of this waste is recycled and 33% sent to waste-to-energy incineration).


Another study concludes that nearly 1.5 million recycling-related jobs would be created in the USA if its municipal waste recycling rate increased to 75%. This is thought-provoking (though we might want to factor in the jobs that might be lost at producers of virgin materials). But if the USA has only around a 33% diversion rate for its municipal solid waste now, is 75% something we can really expect to see in our lifetimes?


Optimism in striving toward sustainability goals and sustainable-plastics growth is laudable, but the reality and difficulty of fulfilling these projections also needs to be taken seriously. If the goals and projections are too extreme, resulting in failure or disappointment later, doesn’t it somewhat discredit those who made those goals or projections? Maybe the answer is to propose reasonable, gradual milestones over time – emphasizing slow and steady progress – and then celebrate this progress toward major goals.


Mike Tolinski is the author of Plastics and Sustainability, published in Oct. 2011 by Wiley-Scrivener, and he is Contributing Editor for Plastics Engineering magazine of the Society of Plastics Engineers in the USA. His views have been shaped by his engineering, university, and journalism experience in the plastics and manufacturing industries over the past 21 years.