The term "biodegradable" has been used over the past few years, to describe plastics or packaging that could potentially be metabolized by microorganisms in nature, with complete breakdown to CO2/Methane, water and biomass. However, there is significant confusion and controversy surrounding biodegradable plastics since many suppliers have used the term to loosely describe their material/packaging without specifying the conditions under which the material would degrade in nature. For instance, some plastics (like PLA) will only degrade under industrial composting conditions, while some others (like PHA) can break down under a wider range of conditions and environments (industrial, backyard, marine). Given this widespread confusion and the misuse of the "biodegradable" term, many global government and industry organizations have issued guidelines to restrict or eliminate the unqualified use of biodegradable as a descriptor of plastics or packaging. These include the European Commission guidelines (European Plastics Strategy) and the Federal Trade Commission Green Guides in the US.
In line with such guidelines, Ubuntoo's recommends that companies providing biodegradable materials, products or packaging:
1.Avoid unqualified use of the term "biodegradable" to describe their products
2.Any claim of biodegradability should be accompanied by a description of specific conditions and environments under which the material or product will undergo degradation in nature
3.It is strongly recommended that companies provide globally accepted certifications or testing for various biodegradability claims (such as the BPA certification for industrial composting)
Further in line with the position articulated by the European Commission as well as major CPG companies, Ubuntoo recommends that "biodegradable" plastics should not be considered a solution for littering (or worse a license to litter). Appropriate collection and end-of-life solutions (such as industrial composting or home composting) need to be put into place to avoid biodegradable plastics ending up as litter in the environment.
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The Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) at the University of Bath is leading a £4.8M consortium to develop catalysts for sustainable manufacturing and help promote a circular economy.
Never sure whether you can recycle your milk bottles with your margarine tubs? Plastic milk bottles are made from high density polyethylene (HDPE) whereas margarine tubs are made from polypropylene. These two plastics cannot be recycled together so have to be separated either by householders or at the recycling centre, a labour-intensive process that can often mean that plastics ends up in landfill because the batch becomes accidentally contaminated with several types of plastic.
This problem could be solved in a few years, thanks to a new project led by the CSCT that will allow a mixture of plastics to be recycled together. The team of scientists and engineers at the CSCT and Manchester University, led by Dr Arthur Garforth at Manchester, is investigating ways of chemically breaking down mixtures of plastics into their constituent molecules which can then be used to manufacture new plastics or other high value products.
The team in Manchester have already demonstrated a process to recover the chemical value from waste plastics and together with the CSCT, they are aiming to develop this further in order to develop new technology for mixed plastics waste.
This project is one of seven challenges being tackled by a consortium of UK universities and industrial partners led by the University of Bath to develop new catalysts that will enable more sustainable manufacturing and promote a circular economy – where waste materials are reused or recycled into other things instead of simply being thrown away.