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Researchers warn of the limitations of bioplastics

Keele University researchers have warned that bioplastics may not be the sustainable solution that companies like the LEGO Group hope they are.

The LEGO Group recently announced that a selection of elements would be made from bioplastics going forward, describing the material as sustainable. The news received broad coverage in the press. “This is a great first step in our ambitious commitment of making all LEGO bricks using sustainable materials,” said Tim Brooks, Vice President, Environmental Responsibility at the time.

While the LEGO Group has been celebrated for its efforts, and previous success in its use of renewable power, it is important for consumers to have a full understanding of what the genuine benefits are beyond the press releases.

Two researchers at Keele University – Sharon George and Deidre McKay – are warning that plant based plastics are far from the complete sustainable material solution for the LEGO Group. In a piece for The Conversation, the environment experts point out that while sugarcane based plastic is not produced using fossil fuels directly, it is produced by the resource intensive practice of farming.

What is more, the piece points out that bioplastics are no better at breaking down than regular plastics, still leading to tiny pieces of microplastics – that have recently been in the news as the extent of water pollution has been uncovered. This lack of biodegradability, coupled with some bioplastics coming from fossil fuels, leads the researchers to consider the term bioplastics to be misleading.

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George and McKay do acknowledge that the move to sugarcane plastic is a step in the right direction, but caution that more will need to be done to more significantly reduce the LEGO Group’s impact on the environment. The new elements will be replacing the oil chemicals used in the manufacture of polyethylene with ethanol from sugarcane, but this only applies to between 1% and 2% of LEGO elements.

As fans know, the vast majority of LEGO pieces are made from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), that there is no clear replacement for. ABS can be recycled, but most recycling collection schemes do not cover the material.

The benefit to using sugarcane plastic will be that it reduces the carbon footprint of those specific polyethylene elements, as growing plants for ethanol captures carbon dioxide. The drawback is that farming sugarcane puts additional stress on the environment, with the researchers citing pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers as some of the negative impacts. The LEGO Group has committed to using the most sustainable farming methods possible, but it is suggested that if  sugarcane plastics became an industry norm, large, resource intensive solutions would likely follow.

As for alternatives, George and McKay suggest farming blue-green algae, that is also generated by household waste and coffee production. This is much more sustainable than sugar cane farming. Ultimately though, the duo see this a small step in the right direction, with more work to be done on finding an alternative to the LEGO Group’s most used plastic – ABS.

The full article can be found at The Conversation.

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