Environmental debate on biopolymers and biodegradable plastics

Materials World magazine
1 Nov 2007
A plastic bottle full of 'mermaid's tears'

Delegates attending the seminar on Biopolymers and Biodegradable Plastics on 3 October 2007 were met with a tropical welcome. Mermaids and surfers greeted them at the entrance of the Institute’s headquarters in London, UK. However, the costumed people were not there to celebrate the rare warm weather in the city, but to draw attention to a campaign organised by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), based in Cornwall, UK.

‘We want the plastics industry to tighten up its practices,’ said the group’s Campaigns Officer Andy Cummins. ‘We were hoping to target like-minded people at the conference’.

They carried bottles of ‘mermaid’s tears’ – thousands of tiny plastic pellets picked up from the beaches and waters around Cornwall, UK.

Peter Davis, Director General of The British Plastics Federation, which organised the conference, said the pellets are ‘a cause for concern, and we will be meeting with the [SAS] to discuss this’.

‘These pellets are an industry problem, and we need to find out where they are coming from in the supply chain,’ added Paul Davison, Managing Director of Proteus Public Relations, UK, a consultancy firm that works with the Waste & Resources Action Programme.

Cummins says he would like to see further development of biodegradable plastics, so that ‘if they do escape, they would break down in months, rather than years’. He is aware that such plastics can release methane when they degrade, and says the SAS has worked with scientists who have identified plastics that only release CO2 and water when they break down. ‘But obviously, that is not the final solution,’ Cummins adds. The SAS intends to work with the plastics industry to stop these pellets from entering the sea.

Inside the conference, the feelings towards biodegradable plastics were muted. ‘To degrade a polymer is an admission of failure, it is saying we can find no other use for the material,’ said Professor Norman Billingham of the University of Sussex, UK. ‘No polymer is biodegradable, they need to be reduced down in size, which requires a lot of energy and intensive chemicals,’ he added.

Davison agreed, ‘PET is getting recycled well now. Please don’t make it degradable’.

But the public’s perception of plastics is that biodegradation is the best option, said Consultant Martin Bunce of Tin Horse Design. ‘Sustainability is confusing,’ he said. ‘People think if they throw a biodegradable bottle in their compost, it will disappear over night.’

All of the speakers identified a need to improve communication with consumers. ‘People need to be educated about the environmental impacts of their actions,’ said Billingham.

Furthermore, ‘Every local authority council in the UK has a different system,’ added Graham Whitchurch of Solutions 4 Plastics in Garthorpe, UK. He called for a nationally coordinated system of recycling.

Delegate Tina Benfield of the UK’s Chartered Institution of Waste Management responded, saying the issue of differing regulations ‘is a historical problem in the UK. It’s not down to waste managers’.


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