Unfortunately, we currently live mostly in a model of the linear economy, which can be described as a cycle of extract – produce – use – dispose of most of the products we use. This model cannot work forever as we have limited resources on the planet, and we can already predict the depletion of some resources in the near future. That is why the circular economy can help us out of this vicious cycle.
Restoration and regeneration are the main characteristics of the circular economy. The products are designed in ways that allow them to be reused or repurposed. The products can be dismantled into materials that will either be sent back to production or will be broken down by nature without harmful side effects. The goal is to eliminate waste and the need for landfills and to help regenerate natural systems.
Conventional synthetic plastics play a significant role in contributing to the linear economy. They are highly functional at relatively low costs, therefore they are widely used, but we globally recycle only around 10%, which means 90% of produced plastics end up in landfills.
This doesn’t want to say we should stop using plastics, as they contribute to the economy and growth, but it does mean we should redesign and innovate in the plastics industry and shift to using more bioplastics.
Bioplastics are the result of a joint effort of all involved in the value chain: agriculture, research and development, biochemistry, and waste management as part of the bio-economy. Therefore bioplastics fit perfectly into the circular economy, as they are all produced from renewable raw resources to create sustainable products.
Biorefineries could play a major role in the circular economy. Biorefineries, just like conventional fossil refineries, try to maximize the use of land, using by-products to fuel the production, but the difference is that biorefineries use only renewable resources. Biorefineries also help to achieve national and international energetic objectives and environmental targets.
The final bioplastic products can be biodegradable and recyclable, which means, the materials can be reintegrated back to the system at the end of the life cycle, without having to waste any content. This sector is still tiny, as it only represents around 1% of total global plastic production. Therefore the impact could be much higher if the production rose substantially.
Bioplastics would be beneficial in a circular economy because they use renewable and compostable materials that can bring nutrients back to the soil; they also reduce the carbon footprint because they are sourced from sustainable feedstocks. Other important factors are reducing our dependency and the use of fossil fuels and reducing landfill waste.
To achieve that bioplastics could start helping to create a circular economy, one of the factors that must be improved and adapted is the waste management of the bioplastics. We need to add policies on separate collection of biowaste and recyclable plastics so that the materials do not just end up in the landfill, as in linear economy models.