European Bioplastics rejects biodegradable study

European Bioplastics released a statement rejecting claims made in a University of Plymouth study titled Environmental deterioration of biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, compostable and conventional plastic carrier bags.

The Australian Organics Recycling Association and the Australasian Bioplastics Association have endorsed the statements.

European Bioplastic Chairman Francois de Bie said the findings were misleading as most bags used for study were not biodegradable according to European Union definitions.

“According to European Bioplastic, the bag defined as biodegradable was labelled as such according to the standard ISO 14855, which is not a standard on biodegradation, but merely specifies a method for the determination of the ultimate aerobic biodegradability of plastics, based on organic compounds, under controlled conditions,” Mr Bie said.

“The study actually highlights the importance of correct labelling and certification.”

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Turning coffee grounds into coffee cups

Coffee grounds could be used to create biodegradable plastic coffee cups thanks to new research from Macquarie University.

The process converts the spent coffee grounds into a lactic acid which is then turned into a plastic, however the method is still being refined by researcher Dominik Kopp.

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Because 50 per cent of coffee grounds are made up of sugars, they can be converted into bio-based chemicals.

The method was inspired by a metabolic pathway that is thought to exist in an evolutionary ancient organism, which lived in hot and extremely acidic environments.

“Australians consume six billion cups of coffee every year, and the coffee grounds used to make these coffees are used only once and then discarded,” says Mr Kopp.

“In Sydney alone, over 920 cafes and coffee shops produced nearly 3,000 tonnes of waste coffee grounds every year.

“Ninety-three per cent of this waste ends up in landfill, where it produces greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.”

Mr Kopp sources the coffee grounds from one of the shops on Macquarie’s campus and took them back to the lab.

“We assembled a synthetic pathway to convert the most abundant sugar in the coffee grounds, mannose, into lactic acid,” he says.

“Lactic acid can be used in the production of biodegradable plastics, offering a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuel-derived plastics.

“You could use such plastics to make anything from plastic coffee cups to yoghurt containers to compost bags to sutures in medicine.”

His next step will be to further refine the conversion pathway and improve the yield of lactic acid.

“I think my project is one of many interesting approaches on how to use synthetic biology in a responsible manner for the development of a more sustainable and greener industry that doesn’t rely on crude oil,” says Dominik.

“The simple idea that we are converting waste into a valuable and sustainable product is extremely exciting!”

New report urges caution for biodegradable bags

A new report from Europe has found issues with testing on biodegradable plastic bags and urges caution when considering whether they should be exempt from plastic bag bans and levies.

Jesse Harrison and co-authors argue in the report that existing industry standards and test methods are insufficient when it comes to predicting how biodegradable plastic bags break down in lakes, rivers and marine environments.

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The Biodegradability standards for carrier bags and plastic films in aquatic environments report was commissioned by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and involved the University of Edinburgh, the University of Vienna, and the University of Helsinki.

said the data obtained by current standards, test methods and specifications can significantly underestimate how long it takes for polymer biodegradation in natural ecosystems.

“Existing biodegradability standards and test methods for aquatic environments do not involve toxicity testing or account for potentially adverse ecological impacts of carrier bags, plastic additives, polymer degradation products or small plastic particles that arise via fragmentation,” the report said.

Auckland University of Technology Professor Thomas Neitzert said this research helps destroy the current thinking a plastic bag with a biodegradable label is safe for the environment.

“The co-existence of conventional plastic bags and so-called biodegradable plastic bags of compostable materials is also upsetting current recycling operations and is confusing the general public,” Dr Neitzert said.

“The current standards are not taking properly into account real-life conditions and are therefore underestimating the break-down times of plastic materials.

“The standards are also not accounting for the damage of break-down particles on marine life when they are digested. A biodegradable plastic bag is potentially dangerous to marine life from the moment it enters the water until it dissolves into micro- or nanoparticles over many years,” he said.

University of Waikato Professor Kim Pickering said the review provided an excellent overview of the current assessment of biodegradability, including its shortfalls.

“It is important to assess how long things take to degrade in real situations and also what they break into and the consequences of that and we need to address such shortfalls,” Dr Pickering said.

“If it is to be assumed that we cannot prevent some plastic products getting into the environment, then biodegradable plastics could be a step in the right direction (depending on the product),” she said.

“It shows that there are great uncertainties regarding the impact these could have on the environment and so we should still assume responsibility of waste and consider its disposal, whether biodegradable or not.”