What are BioPlastics?
Bioplastics are plastics made from renewable biological sources, whereas traditional plastics are made from fossil fuels.
Are Plant Based Plastics Our Environmental Answer?
Since about 40 percent of the plastic produced is used in disposable packaging, public opinion is awakening to the unsustainability of plastic. Therefore, it’s not surprising that alternatives are at the fore front of any sustainability conversation. Because of this, innovators are starting to look for ways to avoid using carbon based plastics.
It’s almost impossible to imagine anything as useful as plastic packaging. Plastic’s are inexpensive and versatile. Plastics can be produced in virtually any shape imaginable. Plastic safely protects our food from contamination. And, in many cases, plastics can be substituted for costlier and heavier materials such as metal, glass or wood.
What should companies do? The obvious approach would be to simply move away from plastic packaging or switch to reusables. However, that’s not always practical for many product types, at least not today.
Are We In a New 2nd Plastics Revolution?
Developed early in the twentieth century, the first plastics revolution occured during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Today, because of environmental concerns, we are seeing a race to produce plastic packaging alternatives.
What exactly is sustainable alt-plastic? Is it recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable? Is it made from renewable materials? Better yet, could it be plastic made from captured carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases? These options all exist today, and many are already being used in the marketplace.
With the market for plastic alternatives just beginning, many questions remain. Are these different approaches mutually exclusive? Is any approach markedly better? More importantly, which of these can work at scale?
Bioplastics represent one approach that has gotten a lot of attention. They’re a type of plastic made from renewable biological sources, as opposed to traditional plastics which are made from fossil fuels. Bio-plastics can be made using anything from vegetable oils to corn starches to food waste as their base.
Do Bioplastics Offer Environmental Benefits?
One major benefit of bioplastics is that they can be composted, while maintaining the same versatility as traditional plastics. Maintaining that level of convenience is crucial to the nature of packaging.
New York-based Emerald Brand, a company that produces compostable, bio-based, single-use plastics made primarily using agricultural residues from crops such as sugar cane and wheat), is hopeful.
Citing the fact that only 9 percent of all plastic has been recycled, RJ Bianculli, managing director of Emerald Brand, told GreenBiz that, “we, big picture, believe, and are betting that, composting and compostable organic products will be the future of waste.”
Doing this, would reduce the need for multi-bin recycling systems and expensive sorting facilities. Emerald and others successfully have demonstrated this model at a number of food service-type facilities.
Compostable plastics provide a great solution for food-oriented, single-use applications, such as utensils, straws, etc., particularly in areas with composting infrastructure.
Compostable snack bags, in particular, have emerged as an attractive alternative to the non-recyclable, multi-layer, metallic-lined bags. These bags have hit, and overcome, a few bumps on the road to acceptance. Consumers felt that the first batch was too noisy.
Currently, Pepsico is working with Danimer on the third-generation compostable PHA based-bag. Their bag material breaks down into harmless components in marine waters within 90 days. While that’s not the ideal result, it is a good feature in case the bag does end up in the ocean.
Compostable Plastics Are Less Circular
While compostable plastics could be the easiest to deal with from a disposal perspective, they are also less circular … a continuous supply of new items must be produced, which requires resources.
Some innovators aren’t ready to give up on recycling. just yet. Sandeep Kulkarni, adjunct professor of forest biomaterials at NC State, presents a more nuanced vision for the future. He notes that bioplastics are broadly defined today as “either derived from biological sources or are biodegradable.”
The world today, does not have compostable Coca-Cola bottles. That means that many forms of packaging still need to be recycled. The future may involve improved waste management systems for already recyclable containers and packages.
So which is of these approaches is more circular? While compostable plastics could be the easiest to deal with from a disposal perspective. Compostables are less circular, because a continuous supply of new items must be produced. This requires a steady supply of new resources. Compostables could be considered circular, however, if they could be produced in a manner that was carbon negative.
Will Bio-Plastics Fit Into the New Circular Economy?
One desired sustainability outcome is to develop plastics packaging products that can be both compostable and recyclable. A few early-stage inventions aim to be this “desired outcome.”
While this is technically possible with materials such as bio-based polymer PLA, these compostable and recyclable products must be handled separately at end-of-life. Otherwise they can contaminate recycling streams containing PET, the material that most soft drink bottles are made from today.
Amazon has Been Aggressive in Adopting New Solutions
One other company that is a big player on the market is Sealed Air which makes the air pouches which we’ve all seen in our Amazon packages as a replacement for styrofoam peanuts. Sealed Air has also just announced a $39 million investment to upgrade their factory in Simpsonville, South Carolina to begin to also produce plant-based packaging there.
The planned upgrade is a partnership between Sealed Air and the Japanese company Kurarary to produce Kuraray’s Plantic material, a blend of plant-based resin and post-consumer plastic. This new packaging will be used for perishable foods such as poultry, beef and seafood in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. After their use, Plantic materials will simply dissolve in water.
As companies move toward sustainable approaches, it’s important to understand both what is achievable today and what is ultimately desirable. Though the field will simplify over time, don’t expect to see a one-size-fits-all solution.
The number of early solutions highlights the need to proceed carefully as all these concerns can be avoided with the right approach. Everything being done today will all have a bearing on both tomorrow’s business and environmental landscapes.
Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
If you would like to calculate your Carbon Footprint, follow the link to the free carbon footprint calculator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.