Battle of the bags: LCA says PE trumps bioplastics
By Matt Defosse
Published: August 28th, 2009
A Life Cycle Assessment completed by an independent research center, Germany’s Institute for
Energy and Environmental Research (Heidelberg), compared bags made from polyethylene (PE),
from PE containing some or 100% post-consumer recyclate (PCR), and from bioplastics, and
concluded that bags from PCR-PE beat the others with regard to environmental friendliness and
sustainability, with bioplastics also scoring below bags made from virgin PE.
The LCA was completed early this summer but its results were first released this week by
the German Association for Plastics Packaging and Films (Bad Homburg), which counts about
400 of the country’s packaging processors in its ranks. The LCA was commissioned by five
Association member companies, all involved in extrusion, conversion, and/or distribution of
plastics trash bags and was done in the knowledge that legislation penalizing bags made from
traditional plastics, and favoring bioplastics, is on the table in Germany and in other countries.
The five companies are CeDo, Cofresco, Fipp, pely-plastic and Quickpack. All make use of virgin
and PCR-PE but none as yet market trash bags made from bioplastics. The LCA included data
from France and Germany, with the bioplastic bags studied being ones that already are
commercially available in these countries. Bioplastics used in these bags are the Ingeo brand
from NatureWorks and BASF’s Ecoflex; BASF recommends its material’s use for bags for bio-
trash only (food scraps, grass clippings, and such), not household refuse.
One of the key findings of the LCA was that the production of the plastics is the most relevant link
in the entire chain with regard to environmental sustainability; the differences were insignificant in
the processing and transport of the bags to customers. The PCR-PE bags scored best under the
assumption these were of a sufficient thickness and strength comparable to bags from virgin PE.
The study also concluded that the eco-performance of bags from bioplastics is bound to improve
as larger plants for manufacture of these materials are built, creating economies of scale, and as
the body of knowledge of processing of these materials improves. Still, noted the three authors,
even in light of such advances, they do not expect bioplastic trash bags to score better than the
other two options in the near future.
The 68-page English-language PDF version of the LCA can be downloaded here; the German
version is also available. Irrespective of the results of this particular LCA, the trade group’s
officials said they consider bioplastics still a relatively new material offering good potential,
especially in certain applications. —Matt Defosse