Is cellophane a recyclable material

Most consumers have probably encountered bioplastics in the form of shopping bags and as collection bags for organic waste. Vegetables, fruit, eggs and meat or beverages and dairy products are also packaged in it. Mainly maize, potatoes and wheat as well as sugar cane and sugar beet are used as biomass for bioplastic packaging.

The definition of bioplastics can be based on the structure of the Federal Environment Agency. The following materials are called bioplastics:

  • Materials that are wholly or partially made from biomass, i.e. are bio-based. It does not have to be biodegradable.
  • Materials that are biodegradable according to the specifications of recognized standards (e.g. EN 13432).
  • Materials that have both properties - bio-based and biodegradable - at the same time.

Biodegradable is a material if it is suitable for decomposition by living beings or their enzymes down to the smallest components such as carbon dioxide, oxygen and ammonia. If a material consists of renewable raw materials, then it is Bio-based given.

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The types of bioplastics currently used for packaging in Germany can be classified as follows:

  • Starch-based blends (starch blends)
  • PLA-based blends (PLA blends)
  • Bioplastics made from thermoplastic starch (TPS)
  • Bioplastics made from PLA (PLA)
  • Cellulose-based plastics (pulp)
  • Bio-based bioplastics (bio-PE, bio-PET)

Blends are usually understood to mean compounds consisting of a bio-based and a biodegradable, fossil component. PLA and PLA blends are used, among other things, for the production of films, cans, beverage and yoghurt cups, vegetable bowls and bottles.

A brief history of bioplastics

Bioplastics are not as new an invention as one might think. As early as 1869, the Hyatt brothers were producing celluloid - a thermoplastic based on cellulose, the main building material of most plants. This material could be used for films, eyeglass frames and toys, among other things. As “cellophane”, it became known as cellulose hydrate from 1923 and is still used today as packaging material. It was only after 1980 that there were notable developments again: In view of sustainability, the idea was to replace petroleum-based materials. Mainly thermoplastic starch (TPS), cellulose acetate and polylactide (PLA) were used. In addition, manufacturing processes for bio-based polyethylene (Bio-PE), polypropylene (Bio-PP) and other plastics have been developed.

With a market share of around 80 percent, thermoplastic starch is currently the most important and most widely used representative of bioplastics. Mainly maize, wheat and potatoes in Europe, Africa and North America and tapioca in Asia are used as vegetable raw materials. The reasons why bioplastics have so far not been able to gain more acceptance are their high price, poor availability and the limited material performance compared to fossil plastics. But the disposal situation is also still unsatisfactory.

Bioplastics are often disposed of like conventional plastics

18 million tons of packaging are used in Germany every year, 44 percent of which is made of plastic. This contains around 1.8 million tons of material that is used for relatively short-lived plastic packaging such as foils, bags, carrier bags and disposable tableware. The potential of bioplastics lies precisely in this area of ​​application.

Compostable plastics should actually be disposed of in the organic waste bin. But it is often difficult for consumers to distinguish bioplastics from conventional plastics. Therefore, bioplastics usually end up in the residual waste or in the recycling bin. However, the degradable plastics often interfere with the recycling process of the packaging from the yellow sack and are sorted out for disposal in the waste incineration plant. And even if compostable plastics end up in organic waste, some of them are sorted out and burned here because the rotting times are too long, because municipal waste disposal systems often cannot distinguish bioplastics from conventional plastics. The foreign matter must be filtered and disposed of in the conventional way along with petroleum-based plastics. In addition, even in modern large-scale plants, the substances labeled as biodegradable materials are not completely composted, and bioplastics simply take too long to disintegrate.

How organic are bioplastics?

A few years ago, great expectations were placed on bioplastics - but these have not yet been met. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Fossil fuels such as crude oil and natural gas are still consumed during cultivation and processing. A study by the Federal Environment Agency came to the result that packaging made from biodegradable plastics, according to the current life cycle assessments, would therefore have no overall advantages over those made from conventional plastics. Although less CO2 is generated in the production, use and disposal of biodegradable packaging and less petroleum is used, this is offset by negative effects on soil and water through acidification and eutrophication.
  2. The biodegradability of bioplastics does not generally bring any advantages at the present time, as the plastics, as described above, often end up in the recycling plant together with conventional plastics. They also have to be heated in order to break down completely.
  3. The prefix “bio” should always be used with caution: plastics may be labeled as “bio” if they biodegradable are, however, not produced on an ecological basis, and vice versa bio-based Plastics in turn consist entirely or partially of biomass, but do not have to be biodegradable.

So there is still room for improvement in terms of the implementation of the very sensible concept of bioplastics. Nevertheless: bioplastics are a sensible development!

Because in the future there will probably be bioplastics that are more environmentally friendly than conventional plastics. Wherever plastics are needed, they should definitely replace conventional plastics in the long term. It is important here that both the production and the degradability are biological.

In addition, the use of renewable resources allows a more efficient use of raw materials, since the relevant plants grow back quickly. The CO2 footprint of a product can also be lowered and greenhouse gases reduced. Such plastics are superior to conventional plastics from an environmental point of view.

What can I do as a consumer?

Above all, it is important to question the personal use of plastic: Do I drink coffee from disposable capsules or do I use the slightly more expensive product for refilling? Do I do without plastic bags and instead use paper bags for garbage disposal?

The most environmentally friendly and resource-saving containers are long-lasting containers such as cloth bags, cans and glass containers for shopping for food in order to use less plastic overall. You can find more tips on how to do this in the Back to Precycling article. The BUND recommends avoiding plastic bags in general, regardless of whether they are made from bioplastics or conventional plastics. Versatile consumables and packaging materials, such as straws made from apple scraps or edible packaging made from milk proteins, are also an alternative. When these new products will establish themselves on the broad market is still open.

Meanwhile, the EU is planning to ban single-use plastic products, including plastic dishes, straws, cotton swabs and balloon holders. Even single-use plastic bottles, which have a high proportion of microplastics, should be 90 percent recycled by 2025. This could mean an opportunity for bioplastics to gain broader acceptance.

Further information:

Author: Frank Wichert / RESET editors (2013), last update: August 2018 (RESET editors)