Biden’s administration sets bold bio-based targets but what about the recycling infrastructure?

Biden’s administration sets bold bio-based targets but what about the recycling infrastructure?

US PRESIDENT Joe Biden’s administration is setting “bold goals” of replacing 90 per cent of fossil-fuel based plastics with bio-based alternatives over the next two decades.

It’s fair to say the report has received mixed reaction – there are some suggestions it’s a step in the right direction, and question marks over its feasibility. Greenpeace, meanwhile, while welcoming an attempt to tackle the plastic pollution crisis, said it missed the mark, and was not addressing the root cause of the plastic pollution problem.

But there appears to be a surprising lack of reaction from the industry as a whole. Very few people, apart from Greenpeace, seemed to have anything to say on the subject.

In the report – which was released on March 22 – the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) outlined what it described as bold goals for helping the U.S. to be a leader in bioeconomy technology, producing low carbon-intensity chemicals to fight climate change and shore up domestic supply chains.

“In 20 years, [the US should] demonstrate and deploy cost-effective and sustainable routes to convert bio-based feedstocks into recyclable-by-design polymers that can displace more than 90 percent of today’s plastics and other commercial polymers at scale,” the report said.

According to the report, plastics are a target because they are major greenhouse gas emitters — the size of the global aviation industry today — and are projected to grow rapidly, accounting for more than 20 percent of annual global fossil fuel consumption by 2050.

“Accordingly, an urgent global need exists to rapidly enable a more circular economy for today’s fossil carbon-based polymers production and to source chemical building blocks for tomorrow’s recyclable-by-design plastics from bio-based and waste sources,” the report said. “Additionally, waste plastics accumulating in landfills and the broader environment is well recognised as a planetary-scale pollution crisis.”

It also called for redesigning plastics to improve end-of-life properties like recyclability and compostability, developing pilot processes for new polymer processing technologies and researching converting lignin and hemicellulose biomass into plastics.

“Biotechnology innovations can create new processes to make products ranging from active pharmaceutical ingredients to biofuels, chemicals, plastics, enzymes, critical materials, and beyond,” the report said. “State-of-the-art biomanufacturing facilities can lead to long-term production cost savings and transform domestic manufacturing to be more sustainable and reduce environmental impacts compared to traditional production pathways.”

So what did Greenpeace say? In response to the announcement that the Biden administration is setting a goal to replace 90% of plastics with biomaterials, Kate Melges, Greenpeace USA Plastics Project Lead, said: “While it is encouraging to see the Biden administration take initial steps to tackle the plastic pollution crisis, they missed the mark.

“This plan does not begin to match the scale of the problem. By focusing on bioplastics and recycling, the administration is not addressing the root cause of the plastic pollution problem: we need to stop producing single-use plastics and switch to refill and reuse systems, not pursue false solutions like recycling and materials substitution. Greenpeace USA research has made it clear that plastics recycling is a dead-end street.

“Governments around the world are now negotiating a Global Plastics Treaty, which is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tackle the plastic pollution crisis. The Biden administration has a huge opportunity to support a legally binding global treaty that caps plastic production and prioritizes reuse and refill. Anything less will result in more pollution from plastics production poisoning our communities, and more plastics clogging our oceans. The decision President Biden makes on this critical issue will help define his legacy–as someone who helped put an end to this crisis, or someone who let it spiral further out of control.”

Looking for balanced views on Biden’s ‘bold goals’ isn’t easy. After all, everyone who makes a comment on an issue like this tends to have a reason for being asked the questions. They’re either involved in the plastics industry, the bioplastics industry or environmental campaigners.

Reading a number of news reports, interviewees included Stephen Croskey, CEO of Danimer Scientific (a biopolymer manufacturer), Greenpeace, and a representative of the Port Arthur Community Action Network (an environmental justice advocacy).

When Plastics News ran the story, they didn’t speak to anyone. No additional comment or insight. It’s almost like no-one with a vested interest in the story wanted to comment.

Stephen Croskrey, CEO of Danimer Scientific, told Packaging Insights that “this announcement feels like a natural starting point for an important conversation about what can be accomplished with the private sector and all levels of government working together”.

I think he’s right, but it needs to be a balanced conversation.

Well, you haven’t given us your opinion, I hear someone shout from the back. Well, I can’t pretend to be an expert on the US bioplastics market or recycling infrastructure. Sirane has recently opened a manufacturing plant in Grand Prairie Texas (which will focus on flexibles, and in particular barrier papers, which use bio-based barrier coatings).

Ours are coated papers – the coating gives the barrier properties, as well as the heat-seal properties. The coatings are 100% naturally derived and sustainable. They are paper-recyclable, and an ideal packaging solution for many products, but they won’t work for everything we know that, and plastic pouches and films still have a place.

What I do know, from my knowledge of the UK sector, is that pumping all the money in the world into recyclable materials is only solving half the problem, if the recycling infrastructure is not coherent and capable of taking those materials throughout the country. In the UK there’s a huge way to go on this, and I am sure the United States is no different.

But bio-based alternatives can definitely be a part of the solution. Greenpeace has a point, switching to refill and reuse systems would help. But there’s always going to be flexible packaging needed. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon. So investing time and money into developing ‘recyclable by design’ plastics has to be a good thing surely.


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Mark Lingard

Mark Lingard

Mark Lingard is Sirane's Marketing Manager

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