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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VTT has developed a thermally formable, biodegradable material, which is 100% bio-based. Its suitability for applications such as furniture makes it an attractive alternative to wood and biocomposite materials available in the market, not only because of its biodegradability but also due to its formability and colouring properties.
Biocomposites made from entirely bio-based raw materials can be used to replace fossil raw material derived plastics, which have traditionally been used in industrial applications. Being thermoformable, the material is well suited for various manufacturing processes and products.
"All the goals we set were achieved: the material is 100% bio-based, cellulose fibres account for a significant proportion, it looks good and it has excellent performance characteristics", says Lisa Wikström, Research Team Leader from VTT.
At the end of their life-cycle, products made from this material can either be re-used, composted, or burned to generate energy without any fossil-based carbon dioxide emissions. Because the material degrades into carbon dioxide and water due to microbial actions, it will not exacerbate the global microplastic problem.
"New bio-based, thermally formable materials and composites are a promising alternative for the plastic products market. However, a big breakthrough is yet to come. A major shift requires cooperation between material and process developers as well as designers," Wikström concludes.
The first model product is a designer chair manufactured as a joint effort between VTT, Plastec Finland and KO-HO Industrial design. The chair, manufactured using traditional compounding and injection moulding technologies, is made from wood-based cellulose fibres, renewable and industrially compostable, thermoformable polylactide, and bio-based additives.
VTT developed the material in the ACEL research programme funded by Clic Innovations Ltd., and the proof of concept stage was carried out with Plastec Finland, an injection moulding company.