Bye-bye single-use plastic! More sustainability with PLA
innovation | Sustainability and climate protection | trends of technology | From July 3, 2021, items made from petroleum-based single-use plastic will be banned from sale in the EU. The market for alternatives made from wood, bamboo and the bioplastic PLA is growing. With a new technology thyssenkrupp is now making the production of the green plastic alternative economically attractive.
In 2015, the European Parliament adopted a first groundbreaking directive for environmental protection. The goal: to reduce the consumption of lightweight plastic bags by a whopping 80 percent by 2025. At that time, politicians and retailers agreed to offer plastic bags for a fee only. Some companies abolished the environmentally harmful carrier bags altogether.
While the plastic bag in the supermarket is practical, the CO2 balance of the petroleum-based material endangers our climate.
Last year, the next historic step towards oil-free plastic production was taken: from mid-2021, the sale of disposable items made of non-compostable plastic is to be banned in all EU countries. This includes products such as straws, coffee-to-go cups, and plastic cutlery and tableware.
In future, we will have to resort to green alternatives for our bbq parties. But it won’t stop there. Food packaging and reusable products are next in line for the green revolution.
Bioplastics: environmentally friendly
The plastic bag is quickly replaced with the vegetable net or jute bag. But there is also a promising way to reduce the consumption of fossil raw materials for food packaging: green plastic made from renewable raw materials.
One of the most attractive representatives of these bio-polymers is polylactide, or PLA for short. PLA not only consists of 100 percent biodegradable materials – thanks to its physical and mechanical properties, it can replace conventional, petroleum-based polymers in many areas. And thus sustainably improve the global carbon footprint. The starting material for PLA production is lactic acid, which is obtained from renewable raw materials such as sugar, starch or cellulose.
Versatile, compostable and almost CO2-neutral – these are the advantages of the bioplastic Polylactid, or PLA for short.
The advantage: PLA does not compete with food production either – on the contrary, explains Udo Mühlbauer of thyssenkrupp, who is an expert on the bioplastic. “For one thing, the land required to grow the necessary raw materials is extremely small. For another, we can reuse waste from the food industry to produce PLA.”
Competing with the classic plastics industry
But even despite the green trend and new EU directives, the economic breakthrough for PLA is not easy. “Bioplastics like polylactides are going up against the established plastics market. Petroleum-based polymers are produced in huge plants and can thus be manufactured much more cheaply. The market for bioplastics is very small in comparison and the products are therefore more expensive,” explains the expert.
PLAneo®: thyssenkrupp makes polylactide a real alternative
thyssenkrupp has tackled these challenges – and in recent years has developed its own manufacturing process for the bioplastic. In Changchun, China, the experts are using their patented technology called PLAneo® for the first time in a commercial plant. The customer: Jilin COFCO Biomaterial Corporation, a subsidiary of China’s largest food and beverage group.
The major advantage of PLAneo® is that the technology makes it possible to produce the bioplastic particularly efficiently and in a way that conserves resources – and at a price that can compete with conventional plastic. In developing it, thyssenkrupp benefited from decades of know-how gained from building over 400 plastics plants worldwide.
“PLAneo is also suitable for large-scale plants with capacities of up to 100,000 tons per year. This reduces production costs decisively,” says Udo Mühlbauer, who closely supervises the Chinese plant. “We have also reduced the energy consumption of the process by means of an energy recovery system. In this way, we further reduce costs and make production more sustainable at the same time.”
PLA suites almost all application areas
PLA is highly flexible and can be used for everything from piggy banks and air cushions to cutlery, pens and seat bases for office chairs – it can compete with petroleum-based plastics in every field. Even in medicine. Since the human body can break down PLA completely, the bioplastic is perfect for implants, sutures, stents or as a basis for growing tissue.
PLA is also equally suitable in agriculture and for industrial 3D printing processes. And with compostable organic garbage bags and coffee capsules made from PLA, everyone can make their own household more sustainable.
The future of bioplastics: great challenges – great perspectives
However, it is also clear that despite new laws, the road to petroleum-free plastic production is still long. PLA still faces many challenges. Waste systems, for example, still have to adapt to the environmentally friendly materials. Currently, there is no dedicated recycling path for PLA products in Germany – the valuable raw materials are often incinerated with conventional plastic waste.
But packaging and plastics manufacturers will have to switch to green alternatives eventually, says Sami Pelkonen, CEO of thyssenkrupp’s chemical plant engineering business: “The market for bioplastics will continue to grow in the coming years. This is due in part to increasing environmental awareness among industry, politicians and consumers. With PLAneo® technology we want to make our contribution to a more sustainable, resource-conserving plastics industry.”