Bioplastics – 20 Things You Should Know

Posted on 10/28/2013 12:48:15 PM By Jeff Timm

One can hardly pick up a packaging or plastic trade journal / e-newsletter without seeing the word ‘bioplastics’ as it applies to a packaging material of choice and as a part of a brand owner’s sustainability program.  Cutting through the enormous amount of R & D activity, hype, actual commercialization and buzz, a few market realities are emerging.  These are based on packaging industry realities, trends and my own consulting experiences:

  • Bioplastics as a material of choice should be a component of a full sustainability program, not an end in themselves.
  • The sustainability programs of many companies are merely what used to be called ‘cost reduction’ programs and barely resemble true sustainable practices.
  • Fit-for-use performance must still rule the day when it comes to packaging application requirements.  In other words, a material must still work in the application and not compromise the safety, protection, shelf-life, barrier or other packaging requirements.
  • Biodegradable bioplastics are evolving into niche applications like food service and closed-loop recovery opportunities where end-of-life (EOL) collection is controlled and the packaging material is returned to a municipal or private composting facility where a controlled process - moisture, temperature and time exists.  Bioplastics currently account for 1% of total plastic consumption with both Asia and Europe having higher usage rates than North America.
  • Biodegradable application development is being hindered by the lack of composting facilities in many areas.  Additionally, not all facilities, even if they do exist in an area, accept bioplastic articles as part of their incoming raw material waste stream.
  • Drop-in bioplastic offerings, like sugarcane based HDPE and LDPE and soon to be commercialized LLDPE, PET and PP, are clearly emerging as the materials of choice even though questions still exist as to their sustainability footprint when examined against  a full Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) – an assessment of the environmental impact of a given product or service throughout its lifespan.
  • Sustainability measurement, like LCA, is still not widely understood or practiced.
  • Confusion is still boundless when consumers try to access package sustainability worthiness.  Definitions of key concepts – sustainability, recycling (what can and cannot be recycled), biodegradable, biobased, etc. are not universally understood.
  • Brand owners are slow to incorporate the FTC Green Guides guidance.
  • The overall consumer market, while stating a desire for sustainable or in their words “environmentally”, still makes their choice for the most part on price.   Multiple studies indicate that more than 80% of consumers favor green products, but only about 17% of them actually purchase green products. 
  • According to a well thought out white paper by the Society of the Plastic Industry (SPI) Bioplastics Council - “Development of Biobased Plastics Independent of the Future of Biofuels” the bioplastic industry can survive without being tied to biofuels.
  • The discussion around biobased feedstock usage for food vs. bioplastics is pretty much over especially with the emergence of 2nd generation biomass (basically non-food plant cellulosic sources - wood chips and non-cellulosic algae) as the feedstock of choice for many monomer building blocks used in bioplastic production. First generation renewable feedstocks are food and feed crops including canola, cassava, corn, flax, rice, sorghum, soybeans, sugar beets, sugarcane and wheat.
  • In the bioplastic packaging development relationship one needs a committed brand owner to drive the program and commercialization rather than relying on the consumer to directly pull-through the conversion to bioplastics.
  • Some plastic converter sales force personnel are ill-equipped to develop/sell bioplastics.  When brand owners push back on pricing they fall back on traditional lower cost plastics instead of presenting a full value-in-use proposition for bioplastics. 
  • Collaboration is essential to success.  Most of the initial bioplastic technology came out of the agricultural industry not the petrochemical industry.  Supply channels, key players, customers, etc. are very different in the two industries.  Early on the agricultural companies recognized they had to collaborate with the petrochemical supply chain in order to reach the market.  Many JVs and joint development agreements were formed.  Successful collaborations are growing at a different level with brand owners reaching out directly to specific raw material suppliers, by-passing converters, to coordinate and even fund development programs.  Coca Cola with their PlantBottle™ is an excellent example of this.  The ultimate Coke goal for their Plant Bottle™ program is “a carbon neutral, 100% renewable, responsibly sourced bottle that is fully recyclable – a bottle we can all feel good about.”
  • Bio-based raw material logistics can be a big deal for the production of bioplastics.  The scale of production facilities can be smaller for many of the niche or specialty applications where bioplastic will find usage as compared to large scale cost effective petrochemical commodity plastics.  Smaller and shorter distribution routes can be established with multiple smaller plants established in areas where feedstocks are available.  This is even more viable as 2nd and even 3d generation materials (e.g. poultry industry waste) processes are developed.
  • The shale gas (C2 ethane) industry explosion in the U.S. will negatively impact bioplastics ability to reach price parity with many petrochemical plastics, mainly polyethylene (HDPE).  HDPE accounts for 41 % of plastics used in the U.S.  It may have already been responsible for the Braskem delay in their new sugarcane – ethanol/ethylene based HDPE facilities in Brazil and the dissolving of a similar Dow HDPE JV also in Brazil.
  • Regarding manufacturing facilities scale some bioplastic processes lend themselves to small production units.  For example, the fermentation process (microbes convert the feedstock to chemical intermediates or polymers) used in the production of PHA lends itself to modular vessels which can be added as needed for larger capacity increases. 
  • Caution should be taken with product sustainability, biodegradation or compost certification as many certification schemes are often misleading and misunderstood.  Self certification is useless.  Even third party certification can be dubious and self serving if offered by an industry association or other party with a self interest.  All certification should be vetted.  The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) and the European Vincotte (OK Compost, OK Biodegradable, and OK Compost) are two reliable certification bodies.
  • The increased industry emphasis on recycling of all packaging materials – biobased and petrochemical based - has put a burden on new biobased products to technically demonstrate how their products affect existing recycle streams regarding compatibility and contamination.

These 20 discussion points should be helpful as one moves towards a bioplastic packaging offering.  I would be interested in adding to the list of bioplastic things you should know.  What additional bioplastics learnings can you add in the comments section below so we can keep this as a ‘living’ list?

Related Links:

Coca-Cola PlantBottle

Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)

comments powered by Disqus