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 Technical Research Centre of Finland is helping to solve the global plastic waste problem.
VTT is working on a project called PlastBug: a mobile container unit to remove plastic waste from ocean areas. The aim is to develop a small, container-based factory that can be placed in an area where centralised plastic waste collecting or recycling is not possible or feasible. The container can be located on a beach or ship. The factory unit would get most of its energy needs for the process from solar energy and wind power.
This year researchers in the PlastBug project have been searching for microbes that can degrade different kind of plastics (PE, PP, PS or PET) and developed methods for the pretreatment of plastics.
Researchers are currently using a three-stage screening method to screen microbes from different sources. Some microbes have already passed the first two stages of screening. In the third stage, they will still need to confirm if they can consume and digest plastic."If plastic degrading microbes will be found, they will improve the ability of the most effective microbes to digest plastic, and they will develop plastic pre-treatment methods further to ease the work of the microbes," says Koivuranta.
A complete process is being engineered around the fermenting unit containing microbes – a small plant in which plastic is modified from waste to products. The aim is that the pilot unit will operate on the Baltic Sea in 2021, but funding still needs to be secured for the realisation of this plan. If the process can be made to work effectively enough, the PlastBug units can progress to commercial production and operate in different locations around the world.
The Plastbug team took second place in the Meriroska (Marine Litter) Challenge arranged by the Finnish Environment Agency on 25 August 2018. This annual project is part of VTT's iBEX programme, which aims to achieve rapid, bold solutions to problems.
Kari Koivuanta is the Principal Scientist in Production at VTT. He host Engineering group in Industrial Biotechnology business area. During these years at VTT (20 years) he has genetically modified several non-conventional yeasts and moulds to produce wanted metabolites, which have been precursors for biopolymers and biofuels.