PLA bioplastics are not currently a greener alternative to synthetic plastics!

3. 2. 2019

A few days ago, at the invitation of Deputy Minister Vladislav Smrž, we and other representative waste collectors, recyclers and bioplastic experts met at the Ministry of Environment to discuss the issue of bioplastic cups in the canteen of the Brno University of Technology.   

The aforementioned VUT canteen was forced to replace conventional cups with disposable ones for hygienic reasons. On the basis of the students’ requests, the canteen bought bioplastic cups made of PLA, of which it uses a staggering half a million per year. Together with our colleagues we looked for a more environmentally friendly (and economical) solution to the situation. Bioplastics made from PLA are currently a dead end. It is a single-use plastic, which is currently not recyclable compare to synthetic plastics, although research and pilot projects are underway in the Czech Republic. At first glance it is indistinguishable from synthetic plastic, so there is a risk of confusion and potential contamination of the plastic recyclate, and despite the manufacturers’ claims, it is not 100% compostable. The vast majority of PLA-based products must be composted in industrial composting facilities, where they do not fully decompose even under ideal conditions. Czech composting plants do not even currently accept these products as they are rightly concerned about contamination of the compost. Moreover, composting – even functional composting – means a loss of value of the product and is therefore not the desired end of the product’s life cycle.  

Under the current conditions, reusable cups seem to be the best solution for the VUT canteen and we are keeping our fingers crossed that the canteen will meet all hygiene requirements.  

However the issue of PLA cups in the VUT canteen has revealed several layers of this problem. It is still the case that the most environmentally friendly and economical option is reusable utensils, because as the saying goes – the best type of waste is one that is never produced. Nonetheless, the VUT canteen had to discard the glasses as the hygiene requirement was that of a separate glass washer, for which the canteen had no space. If you’re shaking your head in disbelieve, you’re not alone. The question is whether the strict Czech hygiene standards (which are often much stricter than the EU standards) are still justified.  

Another layer of the problem is that the current perception among some members of the public that biodegradable PLA bioplastics (the vast majority of bioplastics on the market so far are PLA-based) are a greener alternative to synthetic plastics and their market share is thus steadily increasing. Biopolymers and bioplastics represent the material of the future, especially in certain areas such as cosmetics, agriculture, medicine or applications where 100% biodegradability will be a clear bonus. In the future, we can also expect recycling of selected bioplastics. However, at the moment replacing single-use synthetic plastics with single-use bioplastics is a dead end. On behalf of the NAFIGATE team, we therefore appeal to everyone to look for ways to minimize the usage of single-use plastics altogether and adopt reusable products in a valiant effort to reduce them.