The fight for biodegradability in bioplastics: Aimplas expert talks 2023 research goals
21 Dec 2022 --- Following the European Bioplastics Conference (EUBC) in Berlin, Germany, earlier this month, PackagingInsights sits down with Johana Carolina Andrade Chapal, a researcher of biodegradability and compostability and member of the Spanish biotechnology research group Aimplas, to discuss her key messages to conference attendees and where scientific research in the field will be headed in 2023.
Chapel highlights that as a group, Aimplas wanted, first and foremost, to convey the importance of developing new biodegradable and compostable products in the fight against plastic pollution. Bioplastics, in general, are often confused with having the property of biodegradability, leading some critics to question their efficacy.
“Biodegradation capacity of these materials makes them a more sustainable alternative to conventional non-biodegradable plastics of fossil origin. In addition, these are products with the potential for a high level of innovation, which can be approached from different areas,” she says.
Increasing the biodegradable quality of bioplastics requires scientific innovation in a number of key areas, Chapel asserts.
“Firstly, innovating from origin, since a large number of agro-industrial by-products can be used to obtain biopolymers. Secondly, from functionality, since the incorporation of specific additives, mixtures of compounds or polymers, or chemical modifications at the polymer level can generate high added value applications for different industries, including the F&B, pharmaceutical, cosmetic and agricultural industries.”
“Another important innovation focus is found in eco-design and in the improvement of more energy-efficient processing methods,” she continues.
Aimplas’ 2023 research goals
Aimplas' different working groups are focused on addressing each of the links in the bioplastics value chain, Chapal says. The group is therefore working in various areas that will continue to be a focus for 2023, including:
• Coatings for F&B packaging (plastic and paper) with different properties (barrier, antimicrobial, antifungal, omniphobicity (resistance to water and oil).
• Coatings based on natural polymers (chitosan, gelatins, starches, etc.)
• Metallic coatings to improve barrier properties.
• Fire retardant coatings; luminescent; antifouling; antifreeze: heating joule effect and anti-icing action; hydrophobic; antimicrobials.
• Bio-based coatings: with UV protection and NIPUs
• Absorber coatings: CO2, N2, (VOC's).
• Production of bioplastics from organic waste.
• Enzymatic recycling.
• Extraction of Chemical Building Blocks.
• Cyto and genotoxicity assays.
• Tests aimed at guaranteeing consumer safety applicable to food packaging.
• Accelerated biodegradation tests in different environments.
“For next year, different products with a wide range of applications will be developed, aligned in the context of the circular economy.,” she says.
“Broadly speaking, the methods for obtaining PHAs will be optimized to improve performance, chemical modifications will be made that allow bioplastics to be processed using different methods effectively, polymeric matrices will be functionalized to develop active food packaging systems and generate agricultural applications that promote soil protection.”
“At the level of laboratory tests, the industries of the sector will have the possibility of carrying out a screening test of samples in development through accelerated biodegradation tests. The results of this test allow them to make appropriate market decisions in a short time.”
The continued rise of bioplastics
Given the global geopolitical context, bioplastics are a better alternative than fossil-fuel-based plastics, asserts Chapel.
“Conventional plastics are dependent on the fossil source, oil, whose price and supply have fluctuated significantly, affecting the prices and availability of these polymers to the same degree.”
The production of bioplastics in 2022 (2.217 million metric tons) presented a significant increase compared to 2021 (1.792 million metric tons), and according to the EUBP projection, this is a trend that will remain over time.
“The EU, as well as governments of European countries, should facilitate the bioplastics industry through policies aligned with the purposes of this sector,” Chapel continues.
“Recently, the EU policy framework on biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics suggests that biodegradable and compostable plastics should only be used in a few and specific applications, which is in disagreement with the important technical, industrial and scientific advances made for the development of innovative products based on bioplastics.”
“Therefore, we consider that greater political support should be reflected in the future regulation on packaging and packaging waste regulations, making exceptions in the plastic tax for bioplastics, considering the relevance of bioplastics in environmental preservation,” she concludes.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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