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Date: Feb 05, 2021

Bioplastics in the sustainability dilemma Scientists at the University of Bonn investigate the factors affecting the global land use impacts and CO2 emissions of plant-based plastics

Plastics made from crops such as maize or sugarcane instead of fossil fuels are generally considered sustainable. One reason is that plants bind CO2, which compensates for the carbon released into the atmosphere when plastics are disposed. However, there is a catch: With increasing demand for raw materials for bioplastic production, the areas under cultivation may not be sufficient. As a result, natural vegetation is often converted to agricultural land and forests are cut down. This in turn releases large amounts of CO2. The assumption that more bioplastics does not necessarily lead to more climate protection has now been confirmed by researchers at the University of Bonn in a new study. They found that the sustainability of plant-based bioplastics depends largely on the country of origin, its trade relationships and the raw material processed. The study has been published in the journal "Resources, Conservation & Recycling".


Für den Anbau von Zuckerrohr

For the cultivation of sugar cane natural vegetation is often converted to agricultural land and forests are cut down. (© Foto: Colourbox)


As in previous analyses, the scientists used a global, flexible and modular economic model developed at the University of Bonn to simulate the impact of rising supply for bioplastics. The model is based on a world database (Global Trade Analysis Project). For their current study, the researchers modified the original model by disaggregating both conventional plastics and bioplastics, as well as additional crops such as maize and cassava. "This is crucial to better represent the bioplastics supply chain in major producing regions and assess their environmental impacts from a life cycle perspective," emphasizes agricultural engineer Dr. Neus Escobar, who conducted the study at the Institute for Food and Resource Economics (ILR) and the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn and is now based at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg (Austria).

In the current study, she and her colleague Dr. Wolfgang Britz considered the loss of natural vegetation on a global scale. They made estimates of readily available land to be converted into productive uses at the region level and associated model parameters. In their previous publication, the Bonn scientists had already disaggregated the production of conventional plastics and bioplastics in Brazil, China, the EU and the U.S. – the countries that lead the way in bioplastics production. In their current study, they also included Thailand, which is home of carbon-rich forests. Experts expect the Asian country to become a leading global producer of biodegradable and biobased plastics in the near future. “All these changes in the model are necessary to estimate global spillovers of policies or technologies,” says Dr. Wolfgang Britz, who worked with his team on the extension of the model to derive sustainability indicators considering global land use change [...]


... read more: | 05.02.202


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