Chelo Escrig, Responsible for Extrusion at AIMPLAS: “Replacing all the plastic packaging in the world means producing double the energy and triple the emissions. For this reason, we must bet on the best option in each product taking into account its complete life cycle ”.
We spoke with Chelo Escrig, Agriculture and Aquatic Environment Group Leader at AIMPLAS , who explains why the use of plastic continues to evolve constantly despite the arrival of new biodegradable – compostable materials and the change in environmental awareness of the society.
For her, it is vital to emphasize the search for new products, focusing on their recyclability and on managing them at the end of their useful life.
Since 2010, AIMPLAS and ECOPLAS have been in close collaboration in various projects that have led to the obtaining of biodegradable-compostable nets for packaging of both horticultural and mollusc products.
1- AS A GROUP LEADER OF AGRICULTURE AND AQUATIC ENVIRONMENT IN AIMPLAS WE WOULD LIKE TO KNOW MORE ABOUT YOUR PROFESSIONAL CAREER IN RECENT YEARS AS RESPONSIBLE IN THE FIELD OF EXTRUSION. HOW DO YOU VALUE YOUR PRESENT AT AIMPLAS? HOW MANY PROJECTS ARE YOU CURRENTLY IMMERSED IN?
My career as Head of Extrusion began in 2005 and 15 years later at the end of 2019, in addition to continuing in this position, I went on to lead the Agriculture and Aquatic Environment group at AIMPLAS.
Since 2002, AIMPLAS has been working on the study of commercial biodegradable materials, their processability and their benefits. In this line, we began to carry out physical-chemical modifications to these materials to expand their field of application in single-use products that are difficult to recycle and therefore with complex management at the end of their useful life.
In these developments we focus on single-use product sectors, in sectors such as packaging, kitchenware, health and the agricultural sector. Carrying out projects in the 5th, 6th and 7th Framework Program of the European Union such as:
- Innovation projects such as ECOBIONET.
Today we are still consolidating our work in this sector, getting to know it and positioning ourselves. I am approaching this new challenge with enthusiasm and learning the needs of the sector, especially trying to help companies in the agricultural and aquatic sector to align themselves with:
- Common Agricultural Policy
- The farm-to-table strategy
- The Biodiversity strategy
Currently, from the Agriculture and Aquatic Environment team we are working on approximately 30 projects both in preparation, negotiation and implementation, all of them framed in the following lines of research:
- New developments in the sector
- New developments in biodegradable materials for plasticulture, livestock and aquaculture.
- Evaluation of the impact of microplastics on agricultural soils and in the aquatic environment.
- Recovery of marine litter for use in fish farms and other marine arts.
- Sustainable additives in plasticulture products to protect agricultural and marine ecosystems.
- Waste recovery
- Recovery of by-products with a high content of cellulose, stubble, seeds, bones, … for their use as fillers and fibers in biopolymer matrices
- Obtaining new starch-based biopolymers from by-products such as starch and zootechnical flours.
- Controlled release. Functionalization (antimicrobial, antifungal, phytosanitary properties, fertilizers, …)
- Adsorption and encapsulation processes of natural and / or commercial extracts and additives and from agricultural by-products. Incorporation in plasticulture products.
- Coating of functionalized substrates for direct dosing on the ground.
2- HOW DO YOU THINK THE USE OF PLASTIC HAS EVOLVED IN THE LAST 20 YEARS? FROM YOUR POINT OF VIEW, WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF THIS MATERIAL OVER THE NEW BIODEGRADABLE AND COMPOSTABLE MATERIALS?
The evolution of plastic in my opinion is unstoppable and there will mainly be significant developments in the following fields:
- Technical plastic materials to replace metal and lighten the weight of certain components in sectors such as aeronautics, mobility, construction, engineering, …
- Intelligent, self-healing materials, etc. for use in the medical sector.
- Functionalized materials that provide, in addition to the usual functionality, antimicrobial, antifungal, phytosanitary properties, fertilizers, biostimulants, etc. in different sectors including the sector of the container, packaging, …
In addition, its usefulness has been demonstrated in this pandemic where plastic material has been one of the best shields for its control.
We must continue to emphasize designing new products taking into account their recyclability and end-of-life management, always thinking about the circular economy and that I think is already present in many cases, but it has to be our main goal in the future.
The use of biodegradable-compostable materials is one more alternative to cover sectors or single-use products with lower technical properties whose best alternative is to be managed as “compost” at the end of their useful life.
Plastic materials and so-called Bios are not competition, they are complementary materials and their use depends on their application and the end of their useful life.
3- GIVEN THE CURRENT ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL AWARENESS, THE USE OF PLASTIC IS BEING LESS APPRECIATED. HOW IS AIMPLAS ACTING TO REVERSE THAT IMAGE?
We are promoters of the Spanish plastics platform EsPlásticos together with ANAIP, CICLOPLAST and PlasticsEurope, an entity that represents the entire plastics value chain and open to all industry agents whose objective is to publicize the sustainable solutions that plastics offer the challenges of society, as well as highlighting the many economic, technical, social and environmental advances that these materials make possible.
And it is that plastics are our allies to curb climate change because they are lighter and less bulky than their alternatives and, therefore, throughout their useful life, they achieve significant savings in resources (raw materials and emissions).
To understand it: “Replacing all the plastic packaging in the world means producing double the energy and triple the emissions“, according to the Responsible for Extrusion at Aimplas.
- Applied to vehicles and their cargo, they make them weigh less and save fuel.
- When they pack a food they reduce food waste and therefore save more emissions from the agri-food industry.
For this we must bet on the best option in each product taking into account its complete life cycle. Systematically replacing plastics with other materials can aggravate the problem of CO2 emissions and does not solve that of waste in the environment.
Furthermore, plastic waste is a very valuable resource in its own right. Every year that passes, the plastic products we use contain an increasing% of recycled material. In Spain we recycle more than 1 million tons of plastic per year. We are the second European country that recycled the most amount of plastic waste in 2018.
Regarding its use in the food industry:
- Plastics comply with the most demanding laws and regulations at international, European and national level.
- They are the materials that undergo the most security controls in the world.
- They are the preferred option to ensure food safety and reduce food waste (and therefore emissions).
But plastics also take care of our health because modern medicine cannot be understood without them. That’s why they are the healthcare industry’s choice, both for single-use materials and for life-saving systems: from syringes and gloves, to blood transfusion kits, or even as part of artificial hearts.
The only area in which we should not find plastics is in the environment. It is unacceptable that after using a resource, we throw its waste into the sea. The solution cannot go through making the problem invisible: substituting a material (and its garbage) for another that floats less. The problem is not the material, it is its poorly managed waste, since 80% of marine litter worldwide comes from the land. Replacing plastics implies accepting that we will continue to dump garbage into the sea, but of another material that, in addition, will produce more emissions and, in many cases, will take the same or longer to degrade.
4- WHAT DOES SYNERGIES WITH ECOPLES BEGIN TO ARISE AND FOR WHAT REASON? ARE YOU CURRENTLY COLLABORATING IN ANY PROJECT?
Our first project with Ecoplas was after a presentation of the PICUS project that ended in 2007. At that time we prepared the ECOBIONET project (2010 – 2013) to obtain biodegradable-compostable meshes. They were meshes for the packaging of both fruit and vegetable products and mollusks.
After this project, with very good results, we have continued working in this line in different national projects such as:
- BIOVEGE – VEGEPACK to obtain bioplastics from agricultural by-products for the same extension and for the functionalization of the meshes using additives extracted from the same by-products respectively.
- ÑCOSTAS, a CIEN project that aims to obtain biodegradable-compostable meshes for mussel cultivation that must maintain their functionality and mechanical properties for at least 3 months in a marine environment.
And other international projects such as BIOPACKNET in the line of improving the processability of bios materials for obtaining meshes.
We are currently working on the VEGEPACK project and hope to start with ÑCOSTAS shortly.