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Bioplastics re-illuminated by COVID-19

South Korea's voting site (Kyunghyang Newspaper)

The pandemic crisis, which has frozen the world's economy with fear of infection, highlights the two-sided value of plastic. Plastic, which has been recognized as the main cause of environmental pollution, paradoxically plays a role of preventing the general public from the risk of new infectious diseases, as well as medical workers who work at the forefront of quarantine. The disposable plastic gloves piled up after the vote at the polling place of the 21st National Assembly election last month gave us a strange relief.

As China banned the import of plastic waste from 2018, the problem of plastic waste in each country became a reality. Many countries that have regulated the use of disposable plastics permit or even disposable use of disposable plastics as a way to overcome the Corona 19 crisis.

With the development of the petrochemical industry, plastics, which have been developed in earnest since the late 1930s, are now being used in all of our consciousness life. have. Various plastics are produced using platform compounds mainly obtained by refining fossil fuel crude oil, and are characterized by excellent durability.

In particular, plastic food storage containers, packaging films, etc. have been protecting human health by protecting food from contamination of germs and mold. Negative images such as “Plastic Waste Disaster” and “Plastic is the main cause of various environmental pollution” are the result of our indiscriminate consumption behavior in pursuit of convenience.

On the other hand, bioplastics with a short history of more than 20 years are divided into two types: bio-based plastics based on biomass and biodegradable or compostable bioplastics. Among these, bioplastics capable of biodegradation or composting are being sought as one solution for suppressing plastic waste, and biomass-based plastics are known to have significant carbon emission reduction effects by using plant-derived resources as raw materials. Accordingly, the use of bioplastics has been increasing significantly, mainly in Europe, the United States, and China. This trend coincides with the circular economy drive that started around Europe.

The concept of a circular economy adopted by countries that value sustainable development was adopted by the European Commission in 2015 by the non-profit organization Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is valid for the entire industry including plastics. to be. In the case of plastics, it is important to ensure that the input resources are commercialized, used, and then re-introduced into economic activities instead of being disposed of as waste.

In particular, in terms of the chemical materials industry, bioplastics can play a key role in building a circulating economy by using renewable plant resources instead of fossil fuels to increase the efficiency of resource use and increase waste management efficiency.

The European Commission has developed this, and in 2016 and 2017, beyond the linear model of raw materials→product processing→post-use and disposal, plastic recycling, blueprint of plastic products that can virtuous cycle through design, use, and reuse of waste, is a new plastic. Economy (New Plastics Economy). In 2018, a report on the'European Strategies for the Plastic Circulation Economy' also emphasized the importance of bioplastics that can use raw materials other than fossil fuels and enable various end-of-life options. Under the EU-wide strategy, each European country has its own policy to suppress various plastic wastes. The UK is also in the process of transforming the plastic recycling economy by forming the UK Plastics Pact in 2019.

Typical biodegradable bioplastics that are currently widely used include PLA, PBAT, PBS, and starch-based bioplastics. I'm green PE produced from sugar cane is a commercialized biomass-based plastic. The first developed PLA is biomass-based plastic because it is produced using corn or sugarcane, but it also exhibits biodegradability independent of biomass. The main production areas are the United States, Europe, Thailand, and China, and PBAT is produced in small scale in Korea. The supply prices of these major bioplastics are rising sharply as demand increases in Europe, the United States, and China, and even shortages are occurring in some Asian countries.

In view of Korea's share of the global petrochemical industry, domestic bioplastics R&D experience, and technology, the future growth potential is very high. In many realities, there is a need for policy support to lead the bioplastics domestic market so that export-dependent companies do not fall behind the global trend. On the other hand, biodegradable biopolymer PHA directly produced by bacteria using sugar or lipid is also preparing to be on the market, and PEF produced from 100% biomass raw materials also accelerates commercialization of inorganic materials with excellent transparency and gas barrier properties.

Avantium's 100% plant-derived and recyclable beer bottle attempted by bonding PEF with paper (Avantium website)

In Korea, various attempts to apply bioplastic products have been actively conducted. BGF Retail, which operates the largest convenience store franchise in Korea, has been supplying PLA eco-friendly bags since April 2020, and is building a new production base for packaging materials using PLA foaming technology. Seoul Metropolitan Government announced this month that it has introduced a colorless and transparent “No-label Arisu bottle,” which has removed the plastic label of the plastic bottle. It is expected to increase the convenience of recycling because there is no need to separate and dispose of PET bottles and labels of other materials. In the second half of the year, the introduction of PLA biodegradable materials instead of PET, which is a petrochemical material, makes waste disposal easier and reduces carbon emissions.

Arisu PET bottles without labels

In the name of environmental protection, instead of disposing of disposable cups and plastic bags, there are so many types and numbers of eco-friendly eco bags and tumblers that are given to us. I totally agree with his point,'What if it were practical and long-lasting, what would it be for plastic and for stainless steel?' Unlike the original intention of protecting resources and the environment in place of disposable products, it is ironic that Buddha statues against the environment occur everywhere.

New infectious diseases such as Corona19 are likely to come to us more often in the future, and humans will continue to use plastic, especially for their health. Plastic waste has been recycled through recycling, but as we experienced this time, collection and recycling of plastic waste is not only a difficult situation due to the suspension of economic activities due to infection concerns, but it is also difficult to guarantee the safety of selected workers. In addition, the value of recycled materials has been significantly lowered as oil prices have remained at very low levels. Therefore, the plastic waste problem became more important.

Corona19 will gradually conquer when vaccines are developed and cheaper treatments are available, but the plastic waste problem is likely to remain a much more difficult problem. One solution is the use of biodegradable and compostable plastics, as several organizations are showing good results around the world. Of course, this is not a complete solution, but an attempt is needed to strike a balance between sustainability and health by using biodegradable and compostable plastics from a variety of sources.

In order to promote bioplastics, it is very important to make clear policies, establish a separate emission collection infrastructure, and provide information to consumers. Most of the biodegradable plastics are not easily degraded in the natural environment, unlike the general expectation, and in marine environments. In particular, compostable plastics can affect the quality when existing petroleum-based plastics are mixed in the recycling process, so a separate collection system is essential, and promotion of compostable plastics is very important to consumers.

Oxidative (bio)degradable plastics can disrupt the market and require vigilance. It is a mixture of additives that can promote oxidation in general plastics, and is used in limited countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE. However, if it is distributed and it is not properly managed, it is not biodegradable and can cause micro plastic. In many countries, such as the European Bioplastics Union and the Ellen McArthur Foundation, its use is being opposed.

The upcoming post-corona era is calling for new trends, order, and industrial power. The green economy, collective health, new green jobs, sustainable growth linked to job retention, strengthening the limits of the sharing economy and strengthening social distance, etc., are the main policies of developed countries that are expected to cope with all these changes. The point of materialization is getting attention.

Both United States Democratic Party presidential candidates Joe Biden and the EU Parliament have been dealing with green new deals since last year with commitments and action plans, and Korea has begun to spur the drive of green new deals in the same context.

In particular, in the industrial sector, the establishment of a resource-circulating industrial economy value chain linking the green manufacturing base of the national key industries from petrochemicals to automobiles, textiles, and semiconductor electronics industries to the green purchasing and consumption of industrial goods distribution service industries was established in the post-corona era. It is expected to be a key growth engine.

Among the sustainable goals (SDG) set by the United Nations, in the energy sector, if renewable energy such as hydrogen, solar power, and fuel cells is leading, biomass other than conventional fossil fuels, including shale gas, are used for carbon-based materials. As the only alternative, bioplastics are leading omnidirectional replacement of petroleum-based materials.

It is expected that the new plastic economy including bioplastics will lead to solving social problems through the overall realization of the functionality, economics, processability, versatility, and eco-friendliness of plastic materials as an eco-economic leverage.


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