To replace EU plastic packaging with bioplastic would require more than the equivalent of the total land area of Ireland. And about a fifth of the EU’s freshwater withdrawal. That concluded a multinational group of environmental scientists. They advice to reduce packaging demand of plastics instead.
A new study: The Unintended Side Effects of Bioplastics: Carbon, Land and Water Footprints demonstrate that replacing fossil based plastics with biobased substitutes is not feasible. These findings confront the currently often mentioned view that shift to bioplastics is a necessary move toward a circular economy. And a way to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and reduce environmental impacts.
Land and water
The authors of the study calculated that it is technically possible to substitute almost every conventional plastic material in Europe. But it would require a minimum of 7,4 million ha of land, that is larger than the total area of Ireland. Regarding water consumption, the shift to bioplastics in the EU alone would demand at least 45 billion cubic metres of water. That is equivalent to almost a fifth of the EU’s total freshwater withdrawal. The impacts on carbon emissions are less dramatic but show high levels of uncertainty.
On the global level around 170 millions of tons of plastic is used for packaging purposes annually comprising 44% of global plastic consumption. Substituting these petrochemical plastics with bioplastics would require more than a half of current global corn production – 613 million tons. Twelve times current castor beans production – 1,8 million tons. And around 21,3 million tons of wood. The land area needed for the production of this biomass would be 61 million ha and also at least 388,8 billion cubic metres of water would be used.
Damaging side effects
Co-author of the study Dr. Kuishuang Feng of University of Maryland: ‘In 2019 the global production of bioplastics was below one percent of the global plastics production and constituted 2,43 million tons. The largest share of bioplastics is produced in Asia (45%), Europe comes next with 25%. This number is expected to grow as the EU has committed to transition to a circular economy. Therefore it is of crucial importance to assess all the aspects of bioplastics in order to avoid an insidious solution with potentially damaging side effects.’
Prof. Klaus Hubacek from University of Groningen: ‘In today’s world where we use plastics everywhere switching to bioplastics might seem a logical and tempting solution that would allow to continue business as usual. However, replacement strategies do not always work, and in case of packaging it is clear that we need to look at ways to use less. That is the only option to stop plastic pollution and move toward a low carbon future.’
The research is based on a review of life cycle impact assessment studies and additional calculations to assess the footprint of the substation. The study analyses the market and costs of bioplastics, substitution potential and it’s environmental impacts.’