Bioplastics in Brazil: a new technology! Understanding the challenges in waste management

In Brazil, according to the National Solid Waste Policy – PNRS (Law No. 12,305 / 2010), waste management must guarantee maximum reuse and recycling and minimization of waste – which do not have technical and economic viability for recycling. Management is initiated primarily by waste pickers’ cooperatives and occurs significantly through the contribution of steps that favor the reverse logistics proposed by PNRS 2010 in terms of: door-to-door collection, transport, sorting and pre-processing (Lima & Mancini 2017). These associations establish partnerships with municipal selective collection programs, however, a large portion of these workers also operate independently from the public authorities, informally (Magni & Günther 2014). Waste pickers are generally not paid for collection and sorting services and their income is obtained from the sale of collected and recyclable materials. The main materials that make up its lace are cardboard and plastic, respectively. (Cempre Magazine 2019).

The SIMBIO Brazil team conducted semi-structured interviews in some Cooperatives in the State of São Paulo. However, the cooperative members claim to still be unaware of the waste of bio-based plastics, in terms of differentiating them from conventional plastics. In addition, some biodegradable food packaging is destined for Cooperatives. As they do not have trade for sale as a recyclable product, consequently these packages end up in landfills. The administrators of a Cooperative in the State of São Paulo-SP, Brazil:

“We only know the plastic bag from supermarkets as a biodegradable product. We separate and recycle it together with bags made from conventional plastics.”

“Whether other bioplastic packaging arrived here, we are unaware. There is no market for most food packaging (…) these are discarded for waste and are sent to landfills.”

In addition, Brazil is still incipient in the practice of composting. According to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics – IBGE, there are approximately 80 composting plants across the country. However, most are deactivated due to the lack of policies for the collection, sorting and processing of the collected organic matter. Currently, according to IBGE, composting plants represent only 4% of the destination of the organic fraction of solid waste generated in Brazil.

Although waste pickers still do not recognize bioplastics, Brazil already has the green plastic known as I’m green, produced by a petrochemical company. I’m green polyethylene is a plastic produced from sugar cane, a renewable raw material, while traditional polyethylene uses raw materials from fossil sources, such as oil or natural gas. For this reason, the I’m green polyethylene captures and fixes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during its production, helping to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. In an interview with the Brazil team, petrochemical company’s commercial leader in sustainable solutions states:

Currently, the production capacity is 200 thousand tons of ethylene from renewable sources. The biopolymers that Braskem produces can be recycled just like conventional polymers, (…) they can only be differentiated by measuring the age of the carbon in the resin.”

Brazil still has a long way to go in terms of integrating waste pickers into the country’s selective collection, as well as adding information to these institutions on the advancement of new technologies for the production of bioplastic packaging, on what is biodegradable, recyclable or not. The SIMBIO Brazil team will make a significant contribution to the interaction between private companies, waste pickers’ cooperatives and the local government. Through the Social Innovation Lab method, we have been dialoguing with all these stakeholders in the search for improvements and a consensus on the current bio-based packaging supply chain, by identifying barriers and future opportunities.


Brazil (2010) Law No. 12,305. Federal Official Gazette of Brazil, Brasília, DF, No. 147, Section 1, p. 3, August 03rd. Available at: (accessed 22 December 2020).

Cempre Review (2019) Selective collection profile, p. 24. Available at: (accessed 21 December 2020).

Lima NSS and Mancini SD (2017) Integration of informal recycling sector in Brazil and the case of Sorocaba City. Waste Management & Research 35: 721-729. DOI: 10.1177/0734242X17708050.

Magni AAC and Günther VMR (2014) Cooperatives of waste pickers as an alternative to social exclusion and its relationship with the homeless population. Saúde e Sociedade 23: 99-109. DOI: 10.1590/S0104-12902014000100011.

National Movement of Waste Pickers (2021) National News. Available at: (accessed 20 May 2021).

By Lais Roncalho Lima, May 24 2021.

Waste management and the COVID-19 in Brazil

While Brazil had been enacting important laws to ban plastics, which could leverage the market for bioplastics, the 2020 scenario created new habits that reinvigorated the plastic industry worldwide (Prata et al., 2020).

The advent of the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus (Covid-19), announced by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March 2020, has been causing major global impacts. Whereas the number of known infections in Europe decreased, in May 2020 Latin America became an epicenter of the pandemic, driven mainly by the increasing number of cases in Brazil. Nine months after its first known case, Brazil had at least 7.5 million cases – more than the whole of Europe – and more than 190 thousand deaths (World Health Organization, 2020).

Despite the closure of factories and commerce, at the beginning of the pandemic, resulted in the reduction of pollutant emissions into the atmosphere, single-use plastics were once again essential in the individuals’ daily lives, which increased the complexities of plastic waste management. In Brazil, according to data from the Association of Public Cleaning and Special Waste Companies (ABRELPE, Brazil), there was a significant increase in the amount of solid household waste generated (approximately 25%) and a considerable growth in the generation of hospital waste in health care units (10 to 20 times) in 2020 (Abrelpe, 2020).

Amid the risk of transmission of the virus, the population changed its patterns of behavior and consumption (Kalina et al., 2020). The excessive demand for gloves and individual protection masks, as well as plastic packaging for food, hand sanitizer and medicine, causes concern and uncertainty about the environmental advances that we have been seeking and achieving in recent years (Tenenbaum, 2020; Prata et al., 2020).

Safety concerns related to supermarket purchases during Covid-19 have led to a preference by consumers and suppliers for fresh food packaged in plastic containers (to avoid contamination of food and to extend the shelf life) and the use of single-use food packaging, as well as plastic bags to carry groceries (Sousa, 2020).

Despite the lack of any conclusive evidence for reduced risk of viral transmission from disposable bags, the stance adopted by countries integrates the belief in society that plastic is hygienic. However, the ability of the coronavirus to survive on plastic surfaces can be up to three days compared to paper (3 h), cardboard (1 day), fabric (2 days), which contradicts this view (van Doremalen et al., 2020; Malik et. al. 2020; Vanapelli et al., 2021). Furthermore, it is not clear how reusable grocery bags can contribute to greater risk compared to clothing or shoes, a potential risk that can also be mitigated with proper hand hygiene and personal decontamination. (Silva et al., 2021).

The current scenario in Brazil faces changes in its public policies, as in the laws that seek to minimize environmental impacts on plastic pollution and consequently enable the use of bioplastics. Some laws that prohibit the distribution of disposable plastic materials are suspended indefinitely, as is the case of Law No. 17,261 of January 2020 in the municipality of São Paulo. Action against the law was proposed by the Syndicate of the Plastic Material Industry of the State of São Paulo (Sindiplast), with the justification that the ban at this time can cause problems for the health system, given the situation of a pandemic caused by a highly transmissible virus. The reversal of such policies that restrict the use of disposables plastics causes an increase in the generation of waste from these materials, again inducing an unsustainable culture in consumers and contributing to the global problem of pollution caused by plastics (Prata et al., 2020; Klemeš et al., 2020; Silva et al., 2020).

With restricted recycling flows around the world, the management of single-use plastic waste during the Covid-19 pandemic is being affected. The change in the flow of recycling worldwide results in a lower level of separation and, therefore, plastics are mixed with other types of urban waste, which makes it impossible or difficult to separate and reprocess them (Silva et al., 2021). In Brazil, the problem raises even greater concerns because the impact is also significant concerning the income of the waste pickers’ families, who depend on the selective collection of solid waste for survival in Brazil (Dias et al., 2020).

The pandemic scenario in Brazil is extending the waste management challenges in this already fragile waste management system.

Written by Lais Roncalho de Lima, Rafaela F. Gutierrez and Sandra Cruz.