By Olivia Thomas
October 30, 2019

understanding the potential of bioplastics | article

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Understanding their Potential with the Essentials of

Sustainable Packaging Course | written by Olga Kachook, spc

 

What if we could have plastic’s best qualities, like flexibility and its lightweight, while reducing its greenhouse gas emissions? What if plastic could help keep food waste from going to landfills? What if difficult-to-recycle plastic, like film, could suddenly have new end-of-life options? 

This isn’t just moonshot thinking — bioplastics have the potential to address some of the most notable challenges posed by conventional plastics. Bioplastics are a diverse family of materials, some are made from biomass, such as plants, trees, or animals, and some are now even being designed from food waste. This means they can reduce our reliance on fossil fuel-based petroleum inputs for plastic production. And because bioplastics can be compostable, they also have the potential to divert food-soiled plastic packaging (which are often not readily recyclable) out of landfills. 

Are bioplastics the future of plastic? How are bioplastics sourced and recovered? In the SPC’s online learning course, The Essentials of Bioplastics, you’ll get important insights into the nuances of this family of innovative materials: 

 

Not all bioplastics are biodegradable (or even bio-based)

Bioplastics can be made from seemingly contradictory inputs, including conventional fossil fuel-feedstocks, such as natural gas, as well as plants, like corn and cassava. Depending on the inputs, the finished products are then destined for a number of end-of-life options —  some products are compostable, some are recyclable, and some are both. Regardless of their feedstock, many products are then labeled “biodegradable,” causing confusion about whether or not it will break down in the environment, ocean, or composting process. Biodegradability claims shouldn’t skirt the issue of packaging waste — a packaging’s designated recovery pathway should always be reuse, recycling, or composting, never the open environment. 

The Essentials of Bioplastics provides key level-setting on these concepts. It dives into the diverse inputs for bioplastics and discusses the sourcing and end-of-life considerations for both bio-based and biodegradable plastics. With both recyclable and compostable bioplastics available on the market, the course also explores strategies for communicating this complexity to consumers. For context, the Essentials of Bioplastics also considers how and why companies have set corporate goals around bioplastics and integrated bioplastics into packaging and product portfolios.

As with all materials, bioplastics have environmental trade-offs

Bioplastics have the potential to bypass the environmental impacts of petroleum-based plastics. If made from bio-based feedstocks, bioplastics avoid the high greenhouse gas emissions of oil and natural gas extraction and concerns around health impacts from petrochemical processing. But how do bioplastics stack up when they are made from crops that require high inputs of water, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers? Many bioplastics manufacturers use third-party certification of their feedstocks to help mitigate these sourcing concerns. 

In this course, you’ll see examples of streamlined life cycle assessments that demonstrate the trade-offs between various environmental impact categories. You’ll learn about the important questions to ask when sourcing bioplastics, as well as the hurdles to proper recovery that need to be overcome for bioplastics to reach their full environmental potential. 

When marketing your bioplastic, precision is key

Because bioplastics are diverse and complex, it can be tempting to simplify product characteristics and paint broad-stroke environmental benefits. Yet this may do more harm than good when it comes to consumer confidence and proper disposal. As one study of consumer perception of bioplastics found, product claims often over-promise and end up disappointing consumers. Instead, consumers want to know specifically what to do with your “plant-based” products and packaging. 

The Essentials of Bioplastics explores how product labeling and certification can add much-needed clarity to the bioplastics space. It identifies the standards and certifications that are relevant to bioplastics end-of-life marketing claims, so you know which certifications to pursue if your packaging was designed to be compostable, for instance. The course also reviews how sourcing claims can be verified using certifications for biobased content. 

Bioplastics are evolving rapidly, and so is the need for a nuanced understanding of bioplastics’ chemistry, recovery options, unintended consequences, and environmental tradeoffs. The Essentials of Bioplastics course equips you to tackle the potential and pitfalls of bioplastics head-on. 

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