Replacement of fossil carbon based plastics with bio-renewable plastics such as PLA conserves finite reserves of petroleum, while improving the sustainability of plastic packaging, synthetic fibres etc.
The European Commission, in the framework of the Lead Market Initiative, appointed an Ad-hoc Advisory Group for Bio-based Products, which reported in November 2009 on measures to promote the market introduction of innovative bio-based products, including legislation, policies, standards, labels, certification and public procurement.
Increasingly, all products which contain a bio-based (renewable) content will be both encouraged and valorised higher than any petro-derived materials. Whilst there is a realisation from policy-makers that the economy will be dependent on fossil-derived products for some considerable time, there is also a drive to ensure that replacement technologies receive incentives in order to shorten this time frame.
The USA has introduced a bio-preferred programme in early 2010 based around the measurement of renewable carbon (ASTM 6866). Fossil derived carbon contains no Carbon isotope C14 (the naturally occurring radioisotope) because of its age (C14 reverts back to C12 in time), whereas bio-based (recent carbon) has measurable amounts. It is therefore relatively easy to calculate the bio-based content of any material. The US government has a Federal procurement programme which gives incentives, tax breaks etc to any material which is >51% C14. There is also a voluntary programme in which a product identifies its % C14 content. The EU-27 is now planning to adopt the same measurement methodology.
The determination and internationally accepted methodology of C14 gives incentives to the whole of the supply chain to incorporate bio-based materials. This becomes even more important when considering end-of-life options for products. The European Waste Framework Directive indicates a hierarchy of disposal routes:
The first option is the most desirable, the last option the least.
In the context of recover, which includes composting, anaerobic digestion and energy recovery, the presence of bio-based content becomes much more valuable than a petro-derived product.
Any disposal route which derives energy is incentivised even further if bio-based content is taken into consideration as there is no net gain of greenhouse gases (GHGs) on recovery of the energy unlike the petro-derived materials. There are already incentives for the generation of renewable energy (electricity) from biomass - Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs). ROCs have a monetary value based on how may MWh of renewable electricity is generated and they can be traded. It is highly likely once the C14 test is adopted that any material which contains renewable carbon will be allowed under the scheme. The ROC scheme is likely to be extended to include renewable heat generation when the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) commences in 2011.
This ROC scenario is particularly applicable to materials which are difficult to recycle, for example, plastic laminates and fibre-reinforced plastics.
The Commission is now considering the recommendations of the Ad-hoc Advisory Group for Bio-based Products, which are expected to support development of the market for second generation PLA (Poly Lactic Acid) in Europe.