Study of the environmental impacts of packagings made of biodegradable plastics
The 5th revision of the German Packaging Ordinance introduced special provisions for biodegradable plastic packagings, which are bound to expire on December 31, 2012. It is the intention of this research project to review the current regulation and to provide support to decision makers with respect to the future treatment of biodegradable packagings.
A market survey was carried out which revealed a maximum share of 0.5% of bioplastic packagings of the overall German plastic packaging market for the 2009 reference year. This showed that the market incentive for bioplastics achieved through the special regulation was marginal. It is expected that the share of bioplastic packaging will increase to roughly 1%-2% in the period between 2011 and 2015. There is also a trend towards plastic packagings which are bio-based but non-biodegradable. Consequently, both biodegradable as well as bio-based but non-biodegradable plastic packagings were comprised in the research project.
In 2009, used bioplastic packagings were mostly recovered energetically. Composting did not gain a relevant share as a disposal route for used bioplastic packagings, which was in contrast to expectations initially raised.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) studies often show smaller impacts for bioplastic packagings as compared to their fossil-based counterparts when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and fossil resource consumption, but they do not typically achieve overall environmental superiority over the fossil-based counterparts. Compostable bioplastic packagings contain shares of fossilbased copolymers and usually are heavier in weight. LCA results of this group of bioplastic packaging therefore may even show an unfavourable overall environmental performance as compared to the fossil-based counterparts. Environmental optimization potentials of bioplastic packaging are found in the area of biomass production (selection of adequate crops, improvement of farming operations, use of residual biomass or lignocellulose) as well as in the area of biomass conversion (improved energy efficiency and product yield).
Neither ecological aspects nor the current waste management situation of bioplastic packagings call for immediate action aimed at continuing the special treatment of biodegradable packagings. Further political support of bioplastic packaging in the context of the Packaging Ordinance should be coordinated with already existing support instruments regarding the utilization of renewable raw materials.