Are Repsol’s biodegradable polyolefins the real thing?


Repsol Chemicals (Spain) recently signed a technology alliance with Advanced Enzyme Science Ltd. (AESL), a British company specialized in the development of enzyme-based biotechnology. The first joint project under this alliance is focused on the development of a new range of polyolefins for agriculture applications based on next-generation biotechnology.

What is new is the fact that the polyolefin—in this case, PE—will be formulated in such a way, that it becomes biodegradable. My first thought was: here we go again. Why spend research funds, time and effort on finding ways for non-degradable plastics to degrade, instead of, for example, setting up collection and thermal or mechanical recycling programs? Why not put those same efforts to work to develop films with the requisite properties that are produced from biodegradable, bio-based plastics?

According to Repsol, the first product to be developed using the new technology will be mulching films designed to degrade in due course into biomass with minute quantities of water and CO2. Microorganisms that naturally occur in the ground are said to activate this process of biodegradation. As a result, it will no longer be necessary to remove the film after the crop has been harvested, the company claims. The new biodegradable polyethylene is therefore intended to complement the existing system of agricultural plastic waste management, “ruling out any negative environmental impact that may occur from residues of conventional films that could ensue from its withdrawal.”

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