Bacardi rum bottles, Skittles sweet wrappers, designer water bottles — a bevy of companies are developing biodegradable plastic packaging they say is better for the environment than traditional plastics.
While experts agree we should use less plastic in any form, some say as long as plastics are here to stay, we should be using degradable materials — and also pushing governments to help us dispose of them.
But amid confusion about what is or isn’t biodegradable, and in the absence of proper disposal facilities, some fear these “magical” solutions could lead to further environmental havoc and even encourage more wasteful consumption.
“People tend to believe they’re contributing to the protection of the planet while buying these products, but it’s not at all the case,” Gaelle Haut, EU affairs coordinator at Surfrider Foundation Europe, told AFP.
Synthetic petrochemical plastics can linger in the environment for hundreds of years.
Biodegradable plastics generally break down quicker but they do need to be disposed of correctly, whether it’s in an industrial compost facility or a home compost, Haut said.
But most people don’t have access to such facilities, meaning biodegradable plastics generally end up in recycling centres or landfills — or worse, the environment.
– ‘A lot of confusion’ –
From the United States to Europe to China, supermarket shelves are increasingly stocked with items packaged with “bioplastic” or “biodegradable”, “compostable” or “sustainable” plastics.
Some companies even claim to have developed edible plastics.
Many governments don’t regulate such claims, and most consumers don’t know what they mean.
Bacardi says its biodegradable bottle for spirits will hit the shelves this year. Confectionery giant Mars-Wrigley has announced the roll-out of biodegradable Skittles packaging in the United States.
And late last year, California start-up Cove launched what it said was the world’s first biodegradable plastic water bottle.
None of the firms responded to requests for interviews.
Several companies have emerged in recent years to help certify biodegradability claims and help consumers make sense of the terminology.
“There is a lot of confusion on the market,” said Philippe Dewolfs, business manager at TUEV Austria, one of the world’s leading certifying agencies for biodegradable plastics, which is paid by companies to assess materials.
Counterintuitively, bio-based plastics are not necessarily compostable or biodegradable, he said.
These plastics contain at least some biomass feedstock like corn, potato starch, wood pulp or sugarcane — but may also contain fossil fuel-derived materials.
Conversely, biodegradable plastics may contain no biomass, but are designed to break down into CO2, water and biomass — usually in an industrial or home compost facility.
Compostable items can either break down in industrial or home compost. In some cases they may biodegrade in landfill, but it depends on moisture, microorganisms, and the composition of the product.
In November, the European Commission proposed new rules on packaging to tackle waste and also clarify terms used to describe plastics presented as environmentally friendly.
“Biodegradable plastics must be approached with caution,” it said.
“They have their place in a sustainable future, but they need to be directed to specific applications where their environmental benefits and value for the circular economy are proven.”
– ‘Eternal pollutants’ –
Some fear that confusion could lead to littering, adding to the world’s plastic pollution problem.
“You will think ‘okay, so if I forgot my biodegradable plastic bag in the forest after a picnic, it’s not a problem because it will be biodegraded sitting in nature’,” said Moira Tourneur, advocacy manager at Zero Waste France.
She said some consumers might not think twice about overconsuming biodegradable plastic products, believing they’re less polluting.
“This is encouraging single plastic production,” she told AFP.
Experts say consuming less plastic should be prioritised, opting for other materials such as glass or metal or reusing plastic as much as possible.
Activists like Tourner say companies and governments should focus on standardising glass packaging for things like yoghurt and milk, so they can be returned to shops to be sterilised and reused.
That could also help to reduce the mountains of plastic that end up in the environment every year, which break down into microparticles and enter our food chain ultimately to be ingested by humans and other animals.
Microplastics have been found in soil, oceans, rivers, tap water and even in the blood, breast milk and placentas of humans.
“They are eternal pollutants,” said Nathalie Gontard, research director at France’s national agriculture research institute (INRAE).
“Once these particles are dispersed… it’s impossible to take them back and separate them,” she added. “It’s too late.”
– ‘It’s a jungle’ –
But in a world where plastics are so pervasive, aren’t biodegradables better than “eternal pollutants”?
“We can make an active decision as a society to choose a material that won’t persist,” said Phil Van Trump, chief science and technology officer at Danimer Scientific, a US-based firm mainly producing PHA biodegradable plastic, largely for food packaging and consumer goods.
But plastics remain an important part of our industrialised economies, he said: “We need them.”
Plastics are crucial, for example, in the healthcare and transport sectors. But once plastic products reach the end of their life, we should be able to biodegrade those not easily recycled or where waste infrastructure is absent or lacking — from coffee pots to ketchup packets to baby nappies, Van Trump said.
Experts on all sides of the biodegradable battleground agree that beyond reducing use, governments need to set up better disposal infrastructure to ensure biodegradable plastics don’t end up in oceans and on forest floors.
Setting up industrial compost facilities and collection is a crucial first step.
Governments also need to educate the public and punish companies that make misleading claims, said Haut of Surfrider Europe.
“Otherwise it’s a jungle if we leave it to the companies to decide what they do.”
Google looks to take generative AI lead with Gemini
Google on Wednesday infused its Bard chatbot with a new-generation artificial intelligence model called Gemini, which it touts as being able to reason better than ChatGPT and other rivals.
The search engine juggernaut is aiming to take the generative AI lead from ChatGPT-maker OpenAI as that company deals with the aftermath of a boardroom coup that saw chief executive Sam Altman fired and then rehired within a matter of days.
Google has for years discreetly developed AI powers but was caught off guard when OpenAI late last year released ChatGPT and teamed up with Microsoft to make its capabilities available to users worldwide.
“This is incredible momentum, and yet, we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible,” Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said in a release.
“This new era of models represents one of the biggest science and engineering efforts we’ve undertaken as a company.”
It is the first AI model to outperform human experts in certain benchmarks involving problem solving, math, physics, history, law, medicine and ethics, Google DeepMind vice president of product Eli Collins said during a briefing.
A demonstration showed Gemini recognizing what it was shown, from a person acting out a “Matrix” movie scene to someone drawing a duck and then holding up a rubber duck.
Gemini commented on what it was shown, making comparisons, drawing conclusions, and offering suggestions.
Performance of an “Ultra” version of Gemini “far exceeds” that of other state-of-the-art models in 30 benchmark tests measuring capabilities such as image understanding or mathematical reasoning, according to Collins.
A “Pro” version of Gemini built into Bard is designed to handle a wide range of tasks. A “Nano” version is tailored for smartphones, coming first to Google’s top-of-the-line Pixel 8 handset.
Google raced out its own Bard chatbot earlier this year, continually updating the chatbot based on people’s feedback, according to Bard vice president Sissie Hsiao.
“All of that rapid innovation is bringing us to what we see as a truly transformative moment,” Hsiao said during the briefing.
“With Gemini, Bard is getting its biggest upgrade yet.”
– AI collaborator –
Bard will use Gemini for more advanced reasoning, planning, and understanding capabilities, a demonstration showed.
It will be available in English in more than 170 countries and territories, with more languages added soon, according to Hsiao.
Gemini-infused Bard will be expanded to be “multi-modal,” meaning it will be able to work with auditory and visual input as well as text prompts, executives said.
“With Gemini we are one step closer to our vision of bringing you the best AI collaborator in the world,” Hsiao said.
Gemini ramps up the quality of Bard’s performance, whether in writing poetry or computer code to shopping queries or research projects, according to Hsiao.
The “Ultra” version of Gemini designed to handle highly complex tasks will be released early next year, Google said.
“I’m in awe of what it’s capable of,” Collins said of Gemini.
“This is the start of a new era for us at Google as we continue to rapidly innovate and advance the model’s capabilities.”
Google in September integrated Gmail, YouTube and other tools into its Bard chatbot as tech giants seek to persuade users that generative AI is useful and not dangerous or just a fad.
Those capabilities closely match offerings from Microsoft that infuse its Office 365 apps with AI powers, though those come at an extra cost to customers and are not available through the chatbot on its search engine Bing.
The staying power of generative AI chatbots, once the initial excitement has faded, is yet to be confirmed.
Moreover, integration of the OpenAI-based chatbot into Microsoft’s search engine earlier this year failed to make an impact on Google’s overwhelming dominance of search.
Governments and tech companies however insist that generative AI is technology’s next big chapter and have ramped up spending on new products, research, and infrastructure.
EU proposes three-year delay on UK electric car tariffs
Brussels proposed Wednesday a three-year delay on tariffs on the sale of electric vehicles between Britain and the EU that was meant to kick in from January, in a major reversal of its previous position.
The European Commission said it now wants a one-off extension, until December 31, 2026, after the EU automotive industry raised concerns about the massive costs that would arise from a post-Brexit 10-percent tariff.
The commission’s extension proposal must formally be approved by the EU member states. EU leaders are to hold a regular summit in Brussels next week.
The commission had initially strongly opposed such an extension, despite industry’s pleas, requests from the British government and calls for pragmatism by EU lawmakers.
Its extension proposal, which also covers batteries, includes wording designed to make it legally impossible to put off tariffs beyond the December 2026 date.
“Today’s decision means that we skip an intermediate phase of somewhat strict rules of origin that would have applied from 2024 until the end of 2026,” Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said.
“This removes the threat of tariffs on export of EU electric vehicles to the UK and vice versa on 1st January 2024.”
The change of stance was needed because of “circumstances not foreseen” when an EU-UK agreement regulating post-Brexit trade and ties was signed in 2020, Sefcovic said.
He cited higher energy prices spurred by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, high inflation, and big subsidies China and the United States deploy to boost their electric-vehicle industries.
The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Associations (ACEA) and the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) welcomed the commission’s move and urged EU countries to endorse it.
The tariffs, ACEA said, would have cost the EU vehicle makers it represents 4.3 billion euros ($4.6 billion) over the next three years and caused them to lose market share to non-European competitors.
The extension would “allow UK and EU manufacturers to compete with the rest of the world and, crucially, give the European battery industry time to catch up,” Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said.
– ‘Cannot be repeated’ –
The European Union is particularly concerned about potentially unfair competition from cheaper Chinese electric vehicles. In October it formally launched an investigation into Beijing’s subsidies for car manufacturers.
Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen accused China in September of keeping the cost of Chinese electric cars “artificially low by huge state subsidies”.
Sefcovic said the commission’s proposal “supports the competitiveness of our industry and protect jobs in the European Union” and “it’s absolutely clear that this one-off extension cannot be repeated nor prolonged”.
Britain formally left the European Union in January 2020 then, during a transition period, sealed the post-Brexit free-trade agreement with the bloc which came into effect in 2021.
Under that deal, tariffs were to start on January 1, 2024, on vehicles that do not have at least 45 percent UK- or EU-made content, and with batteries that are at least 50-60 percent sourced from each of those territories.
Along with the extension proposal, the commission announced additional funding of up to three billion euros to boost the EU’s battery-manufacturing industry.
The EU’s trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis, said the proposal “provides much-needed predictability and stability to EU car- and battery-makers at a time of fierce global competitive pressure”.
Twitch to shut down in SKorea over ‘seriously’ high fees
US-based streaming platform Twitch said Wednesday it would stop its service in South Korea in February because of “seriously high” network costs, dealing a blow to millions of users in one of the heartlands of e-sports.
The Amazon-owned company said in a statement signed by CEO Dan Clancy that costs were 10 times higher than most other countries, making it impossible to continue operating.
South Korea allows internet service providers to charge data-heavy companies like Twitch extra fees, which has already led to a long dispute with Netflix.
Big telecom firms in Europe have pushed for a similar deal, which they call “fair share”, but an EU consultation concluded in October that the idea was not popular.
Twitch said it had tried to lower its costs by reducing the maximum video quality but it was still losing money and would pull out of the country on February 27.
“The cost of running Twitch in South Korea is currently seriously high,” said the statement.
– ‘Stellar player’ –
Twitch, acquired by Amazon in 2014 for close to $1 billion, gained significant traction among gamers in South Korea.
The firm does not publish user numbers but it was widely reported in 2021 to have six million users in South Korea, more than four percent of its global total.
The country is known for its passionate, competitive, and dedicated gaming community, as well as its megastar Faker — a gamer hailed as the Michael Jordan of e-sports.
“We would like to reiterate that this was a very difficult decision, and one that all of us at Twitch are deeply saddened by,” the company’s Wednesday statement said.
“South Korea has always been a stellar player in the global e-sports community and will continue to do so.”
Shares in South Korean video streaming service Afreeca TV, Twitch’s competitor, soared almost 30 percent in afternoon trading in Seoul.
Some of the country’s Twitch users were devastated by the news.
One streamer, yummy_2 said: “It feels like losing my job right now.”
– Biden vs Trump –
Netflix was the first major international firm to cry foul over South Korea’s rules on network fees, getting entangled in lawsuits with SK Broadband, one of South Korea’s biggest internet service providers.
However, the two firms announced in September they would drop the legal cases and would now instead “collaborate as partners for the future”.
While the usage fees are a boon to telecom companies, they are bitterly opposed by tech platforms around the world.
European lawmakers and digital rights activists also argue such an arrangement could break rules on net neutrality, whereby telecoms firms are barred from selling faster internet speeds to particular companies.
The issue has been at the heart of a years-long dispute in the United States with former President Donald Trump rolling back net neutrality rules and his successor Joe Biden struggling to restore them.
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