This article refers to the interview to Mario Malinconico, previous Research Director at the Institute of Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials of the Italian National Research Council (CNR), Pozzuoli, Italy on “EU: stop to single-use plastics even biodegradable plastics”. The interview was held by the journalist and television author Milena Gabanelli, supported by the journalist and editor Domenico Affinito, for Dataroom, the data journalism column of Corriere della Sera on June 22nd, 2021.
The European Union (EU) Directive 2019/904, commonly known as the Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive binds on the Member States to prohibit the placing on the market of single-use plastic products. The 10 most commonly found single-use plastic items on European beaches, identified by the SUP Directive, alongside fishing gear, represent 70% of all marine litter in the EU:
From July 3rd, 2021 the SUP Directive has come into force.
According to the National Geographic, eight million tons of plastics are dumped into the ocean every year. Out of this 8000000, around 70% ends up on the seabed and 30% remains on the surface feeding large islands of plastics that are forming in the oceans. A plastic island a few tens of kilometers long is also forming between Corsica and the Italian coast. Since all plastic debris deteriorates over time, when it reaches the size of plankton it is ingested by fish, thus entering the human food chain. In addition, fish can be seriously injured if the ingest large plastic objects. Single use plastics are large part of plastic waste found on our beaches, that is, 17.3% of food wrapping 17.11 of straws, 9.2% cutlery, 3.1% dishes and glasses.
There are biodegradable and compostable plastics, even blends, whose precursors derive from oil refining. On the other hand, there are also polymeric materials deriving from bioethylene, which are not degradable and compostable, as opposed to some materials which derive at least partially from oil refining. I think that you are the most entitled to explain the difference between the two categories of materials and resolve the existing confusion about the definition of bioplastics.
As for the field of non-biodegradable plastics, of which polyethylene is a relevant example, I mean the plastic of which bags and bottles of detergents are made, well that polyethylene is historically obtained from oil waste, that is, oil fractions that are not used to produce energy and can be transformed into ethylene and then into polyethylene. That type of polyethylene harnesses fossil carbon, which builds up over millions of years. Today, however, for some decades in reality, an alternative process has been developed to produce polyethylene. It consists of obtaining ethylene from sugar. Sugar can indeed be converted into ethanol, which is then transformed into ethylene, which, in turn, is converted into polyethylene in the same plants used to produce oil-based polyethylene. You cannot see the difference between bio-polyethylene and conventional polyethylene, because they are the same in all respects. Only by using highly sophisticated techniques it is possible to distinguish these two types of polyethylene. By analyzing the age of the carbon atoms present in biopolyethylene by carbon-14 dating, we realize that instead of carbon atoms that are three to four million years old, it contains young carbon atoms from renewable sources, that is, from plants. Otherwise the oil-based- and the bio-based polyethylene are absolutely indistinguishable as both are neither biodegradable nor compostable.
Are you talking about plastic bottles made of PET?
It’s not correct! “PET” belongs to a different family of polymers. We were talking about “PE”, which stands for polyethylene, whereas PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate. PET is another type of plastic that can be used, for instance, for containing carbonated beverages. PET has specific physico-chemical properties that make it suitable for certain types of packaging. For instance, if we poured a carbonated drink in a polyethylene bottle, it would rapidly release the gas to the environment, since polyethylene is permeable to gases. In contrast, PET is impermeable to gases and that’s why this oil-based material ca be used to produce bottles for carbonated drinks.
PET is neither biodegradable nor compostable and must be recycled
Yes of course.
Can you clarify the definition of bioplastics, since according to all associations on bioplastics, including the “European Bioplastics”, bioplastics are defined as those plastics whose raw materials derive from nature? But it is not correct to define bioplastics referring to the source and not to the final destination, which we are most interested into.
Let’s start from a relevant concept: the term bioplastics is not scientifically rigorous. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the worldwide chemical society in which I represented Italy for eight years, already in 2012 defined terms alternative to bioplastics, since this word is misleading. It means nothing, even if it has become a common term. For some people bioplastics are plastics of purely plant origin, irrespective of the fact that they are biodegradable or not. Coming back to biopolyethylene obtained from plant sources, it is also defined as a bioplastic, but it is certainly not biodegradable. Instead, certain oil-based plastics are chemically designed in such a way as to be biodegradable and compostable and even if they do not derive from a plant source, being biodegradable and compostable, can also be defined using the broadly inappropriate term bioplastics. The Italian scientific community prefers following the IUPAC guidelines, which define a bioplastic a plastic of either plant or fossil origin that is compostable at the end of life.
But then we find it written on this plastics or not? Because if, for instance, I travel by train and now on the Frecciarossa carriages you can find water bottles made of paper and you can find a lot of symbols, such as” protect the environment”…. and I take this container and think that it is made of paper, then maybe I don’t have much care and I leave it there or I put it into in the paper recycling bin. But is this how it works? Because then if try to understand “what material is this?” it is Tetra Pak.
Yes, it is Tetra Pak, these bricks are always made of Tetra Pak. They are made of something that looks like paper, but it is Tetra Pak.
So, I who am not an expert think it is paper and it is not.
Not entirely! It couldn't just be paper. If, for instance, you take a pizza paper box, what would it happen if you pour water into this paper box? It would swell and soften, because that paper box does not contain any protective layer, simply because pizza is a solid. But if part of the topping falls on it, we all pay the price for the fact that even pizza boxes tends to soften. Now if that briquettes of Tetra Pak were made only of paper, they would not stand in contact with water even the time to produce it and put it on the shelf. Therefore, they always have a protective layer. It may be a polyethylene layer, or a bioplastic layer, or a layer of lacquer. In any case they need a protection. Therefore, the indication “protect the environment” is generic: but with what do I protect paper?
So where should I throw that container? I take in on my hands and since I do not know where I can throw it, I leave it there or I throw it somewhere either in the plastic bin or in the mixed fraction bin.
Oh no, not in the plastic fraction! It is normally labelled with the code “CA”, which stands for cardboard and it should go to the paper recovery. These containers normally go to the paper fraction, because the paper mills that receive this material have suitable plants to efficiently separate plastics. Paper goes to repulping, that is, to make paper again, and it works for a certain number of cycles. The recovered polyethylene goes to the polyethylene recovery. Otherwise, if the protective layer is made of bioplastic, because nowadays we also have bricks made of biodegradable plastics….
I am sorry if I interrupt you. If am a consumer, how can I distinguish biodegradable compostable plastics from all other plastics that appear to be but are not?
It is written on the label! The label must absolutely provide an indication. The definitions are improving. The legislation on eco labeling is making its way to improve the quality.
Let’s forget what we are doing to improve, which we hope that it is always the best. Todays what can I find written on a biodegradable bottle: compostable bottle or container?
You must absolutely find it written “compostable” in accordance with EN13432, which is the reference legislation. If it has a protective bioplastic layer that is of a biodegradable plastic, it can go into the organic fraction. If it is not biodegradable, you find the “CA” code with the “recyclable ring” because normally it has a polyethylene layer and polyehtylene is separated by in the paper line recycles this kind of paper. You can understand that labels are very important.
We have a very interesting industrial sector. We were the first to invest in it and on 2019 we have produced out of 152 million tons biodegrade able and compostable plastics in Europe; Italy has produced 101.000 in all Europe. We produce 66% of the biodegradable e compostable bioplastics in Europe. Therefore, we produce 66% of the overall bioplastics produced in Europe. We have many products, we have 280 dedicated companies, 2780 employed and 8815 million euro of annual revenue, and this is an Italian excellence. We also invest in research in this sector.
Now we come to the European Directive 2019/904 that bans a series of single-use plastic products with no distinction because biodegradable and compostable plastics have not been considered.
In my opinion it is a mistake. It is important to continue the discussion. We were building on an ethical basis, on an autharchic basis, a virtuous line to support the recovery of the organic fraction of urban solid waste. This was the concept we started from on 2011. Compostable packaging, compostable bioplastics being used to collect the domestic organic fractions have improved the transfer of this fraction to composting plants. Italy has decided to invest in this sector and coming back today would be very serious, in my opinion. I say that both as a scientist and as a citizen. It would be a mistake, since plastics are useful and cannot be replaced by paper, since paper cannot have the same characteristics as plastics.
Yes indeed, but we are talking about single use plastics and we are limiting the field. Europe has voted “no” to all types of plastics, included this one approved by all Member States, hence also by Italy. Therefore, regardless of what we voted for, hence also for us, the decision of the majority is that, that is, why should not go into the sea?
Because it must not reach the sea!
I know but nothing should reach the sea!
But single use plastic must not reach the sea. Do you think that aluminum cans can be thrown into the sea? However, they can be found there, and many other objects that actually should not reach the sea can actually be found there. We must intercept them, and once we have intercepted them, we must know what to do with them. They must not go to landfill and must not go to incineration. We must intercept them in advance. This is absolutely necessary for all objects, even intended for a short term duration.
We absolutely agree but, however, there is a fact, that we are not civil enough to collect and differentiate. We are rather uncivilized to abandon containers in nature, especially disposable ones, precisely because they are disposable. Italy is one of the major consumer of single-use [plastics] although these islands were formed by waste from all over the world. Certainly, we are also among the major recyclers since we recycle 47% packaging against 30% of the European average. However, all this stuff is in the sea and how can we stop it? You cannot put a policeman in front of every person who goes to a beach or to a river. This is the decision: any type of plastics, even biodegradable plastics are forbidden, because even in the case of plastics that biodegraded in water under varying conditions it is not known how long they last.
Well, let's say that technology goes on and as technology advances the regulations are also improved, in the sense that today it is not possible to build a specific legislation that tells us time and way in which a plastic that is recklessly or sometimes even voluntarily left in the sea degrade. For example, a lot of work is being done on fish nets, which are accidentally left in the sea. Some bioplastics today are also certifiable as degradable in the sea. Clearly, it is necessary to simulate a marine environment, that is, an environment with a certain salinity, bacterial load and a certain temperature and try to define the boundaries. However, the degradation times in seawater are long, because the bacterial load of the sea is not obviously the same bacterial load found in a compost. But already the plastics that are approved today for a use in agriculture that are degradable and compostable plastics in soil, they can be approved even if they degrade in the sea in two years instead of 180 days. Therefore, once the conditions have been defined, each environment can define degrees of degradation levels. There is no such thing as all black or white.
Legislation allows the use of cellulose, since it is a non-modified polymer, but cellulose biodegrades as plastics do but it takes less time.
Fortunately, cellulose doesn't degrade so easily! We would have lost all the books printed on cellulose, that is on paper, from the Egyptian papyri onwards. Special conditions are required for degradation degrade also in the case of cellulose. Let's say that cellulose, being an “open” material compared to plastics that are “closed” dense materials. Paper is classified according to its “weight”, which is in practice something more or less like density. By modifying the density, we can modify the distance among the fibers of cellulose, making it more or less “open”. Then water swells it in more or less long times and then, once water has entered, microorganisms can adhere on it and it slowly degrades. But cellulose, being a natural polymer, has less impact.
As a final question: you said that we have invested heavily in the biodegradable and compostable industry, and we have made significant strides in research. I wonder if all this will lead to a virtuous mechanism or supply chain that will cause the reduction of single-use plastic consumption, which is the ultimate goal. Furthermore, I ask you how it is possible that after two years from the entry into force of the SUP Directive we suddenly realize that we have a problem, that our innovative industry risks losing good products, presumably better than many others, since, for example, paper, which will replace them, needs to be lacquered in order to pour tea or coffee or broth inside. Therefore, I ask you why our business system found itself vulnerable at the last minute and was unable to convince Europe and all Member States that these products are valuable and deserve careful consideration.
I can speak based on my experience, since I have been working with companies in the packaging sector for more than ten years. I have met enlightened and socially aware entrepreneurs that have invested on their own, with no financial backing, and have decided more than ten years ago to invest in the sector of biodegradable and compostable plastics. I would like to know why they did not succeed in Europe. Many other did not invest in plant renovation. This is most a probably very much Italian attitude: “Probably the law will change before it is applied!”, “Maybe we can have a delay”. If ten-twelve years ago had we all made a common front, I mean all the world of plastics had stated that we cannot abandon certain goals and strategies, we would not have found ourselves at this point. We made a mistake but, on the other hand, those who do not make mistakes do not improve.
However, we have been making a bit of a mistake on all fronts for years! Do you think that only companies made mistakes, not building a common front, that is to say, in lobbying in Europe to protect good products or did politics not know how to defend Italian interests, whereas the northern countries have defended theirs?
This is probably true. Some companies have even pursued the objective, a fairy tale, of the oxodegradable plastics. In other words, in order to be able to continue producing polyethylene, they invented certain additives that according to producers allowed plastics to degrade by the action of enzymes. There has been a lot of conservatism in politics and in the business world and both of them should make a mea culpa.
Luca Sintucci says we should also remove all plastics from the single-use sanitaryware sector
Can you imagine what it would have happened? If instead of the 50 million cases of Spanish flu maybe we'll reach around three million COVID 19 cases, it is also because the logistics of vaccines and the presence of plastics in the world has helped a lot. We need to learn how to manage the single-use plastics in the sanitaryware sector. However, without single-use gowns, face masks, syringes how could we handle a planetary tragedy like the COVID 19 pandemia? So we need to think very carefully about the choices we make.