Plastic surplus and shortage: possible ways out of the crisis

The global plastic stock knows two extremes and has dramatic effects in both cases

On the one hand, images of Serbia’s Potpeć Resevoir or Bolivia's Uru Uru lake circulated early 2021, both almost completely covered with plastic waste. On the other hand, a shortage of plastic raw materials such as polyethylene or polypropylene resulted in a lack of packaging materials, coffee capsules, yogurt pots, printer cartridges or bioreactors for vaccine production over the past twelve months. Since twenty years, disposable plastic bioreactors of up to 4,000 L have been increasingly used in biotechnological production. BioNtech, Pfizer, Moderna or Novavax produce their Covid vaccines in such single-use plastic bioreactors. And these are just now in short supply! The reason for this problem is similar to the one we have described for the shortage of medicines in Switzerland ("Corona pandemic as a trigger for changes in the pharmaceutical-chemical industry?"): dependence on other countries and industries. The question now arises: could plastic made from renewable raw materials prevent such bottlenecks in the future? As a reminder: around one million tons of plastics are used in Switzerland each year. Roughly one third is used in packaging and about 570,000 tons are processed into durable products. Mulch films in agriculture are a small success story. Of the 300 tons used each year in Switzerland, 80 tons are already made from compostable biopolymers. One year after plowing under, 70% of these mulch films are gone. The SATW thematic platform “Biotechnology” has been tackling “biopolymers” since 2018 together with Roger Marti (HES SO Fribourg) and Manfred Zinn (HES SO Sion). It became apparent that for biopolymers there is hardly any knowledge of the different market participants, and a "roadmap” for biopolymers is missing. But the topic is complex, with many open questions: markets (packaging to MedTech), raw materials, production methods, process engineering, field tests, labeling, sustainability standards, legislation, regulation, economic evaluation or political directives. Because of this complexity, we decided in November 2019, to start with a focus on bioplastics in food packaging. We were also able to get Yldirim Selçuk (ZHAW Wädenswil) on board. But our third forum entitled “Biopolymers in food packaging”, scheduled for March 2021, had to be cancelled. Less because of Corona than because of most of the invited players were hesitant. The major retailers showed little interest in our planned workshop. It is true though that packaging and plastic reduction is an issue at Migros, Coop and the other large retailers. All of them together have probably replaced about 50,000 tons of packaging material in Switzerland. But bioplastics are not yet seen as an attractive alternative to petroleum-based plastics. Even though we have chosen biopolymers in food packaging as our entry point, we need to include macroeconomic developments and fundamental aspects in our discussions early on. A far-sighted and entrepreneurial view is needed.  *Bioplastics only make sense if made from non-edible raw materials. IKEA for example advertises bowls based on corn, which does not make a lot of sense. If the 400 million tons of the annual worldwide plastic were to be produced from corn, it would take more than 130% of the global annual corn harvest.  *Instead of a national solution, a production alliance with European neighbors for adequate security of supply is almost certainly more expedient.  *Switzerland, with very limited raw material possibilities, should concentrate on product and process development. There are now countless process options and variants for producing biopolymers or composites, and the non-oil based raw materials range from many different renewable raw materials to CO2.  *The "life cycle costing" of the various processes and products must be calculated in a standardized manner.  *With the switch from petroleum-based to renewable energy sources, refineries will inevitably have to be scaled back. This will have major changes in the petrochemical value chains in the long term. The petroleum-based plastic industry will also be affected. How will prices and production volumes develop, and what are the consequences for the production of biopolymers? Last but not least: SATW has decided to participate in the NTN Innovation Booster Swiss Food Ecosystems ideas contest. We ask a simple question: what can biopolymers contribute to sustainable and innovative food packaging and how and which types of biopolymers would be suitable? Are you also interested in working with us on this topic, please contact us!

Hans-Peter Meyer, Expertinova AG, SATW Member, Head thematic platform “Biotechnology”