Study on the Effect of Bio-Based Materials&rsquo; Natural Degradation in the Environment
The article presents an analysis of the impact of bio-based materials on the environment, with a special focus on polylactic acid (PLA), as it is considered one of the most popular bioplastics in the market. The results show that there are several factors that must be taken into account when choosing the best end-of-life option for this type of material, in agreement with the newly introduced concept of the circular economy, according to the physical&ndash;chemical analysis obtained at the end of this study. The ecotoxicity tests showed that all tested materials (PLA spoon, PLA filament, b2w technology bag and cocoa paper tray) could be suitable for incineration with energy recovery without producing dioxines during combustion (chlorine content in all tested materials was below 1.00% w/w). It was also determined that PLA was the material with the highest potential for energy recovery since it presented the highest calorific value and highest carbon content (18.73 MJ/kg and 52.23%, respectively). The biodegradation rate of the different bio-based materials was also tested under different environments during three months, with Baltic Sea water and medium-grain sand being the environments in which the majority of the bio-based materials showed the lowest degradation rates. An additional test in a small-scale electric composter with microbe technology was carried out in order to evaluate the degradation of the studied materials in an environment with controlled conditions, and results showed high values of weight loss for the majority of the bio-based materials (all above 80% weight loss) due to the high temperature that the device could reach during the composting process. Finally, a strategy for providing guidance in selecting routes for the waste management of bioplastics, depending mainly on the available infrastructure and material properties, was proposed as a result of this work. For the case of low- and medium-income countries, an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy is proposed as a provisional solution to control plastic waste pollution, which should be complemented by regulations and systems aimed at the successful introduction of bioplastics.