What is bioplastic?
A bioplastic is a substance made from organic biomass sources, unlike conventional plastics, which are made from fossil resources (oil and gas), bioplastics are made from a number of renewable resources such as plant oils, cellulose, starches, sugars, carbohydrates, bacteria and algae
The production of almost all bioplastics results in less CO2 than that of conventional plastics.
What's the difference between compostable and biodegradable?
A compostable item will completely biodegrade in a compost environment in a defined timeframe. Most BioPak bioplastic products are certified compostable to international standards.
- Completely biodegrade within 120 days
- Leave a nutrient rich humus with no toxic residue
The word ‘biodegradable’ is often used to promote a product as being environmentally friendly. Technically, everything is biodegradable given sufficient time. Unlike certified compostable products, in Australia & New Zealand there are no industry standards required in order to describe a product as biodegradable.
Why is Bioplastic Packaging better?
As a consumer, if you want to reduce your environmental impact, don’t use single use disposable items – rather bring your own reusable foodservice items. However, it is not always convenient or practical to bring one’s own food service packaging and it’s in these situations that single use food service disposables are the best solution. They provide a hygienic and cost effective way to serve food and beverages to large numbers of people.
Renewable resources and reducing your CO2 footprint
Independent from the end-of-life disposal options of the product, if given a choice to purchase a single use disposable product made from limited fossil resources or one made from abundant rapidly renewable resources, one made from renewables is a more sustainable and environmentally responsible choice.
It helps reduce the dependency on finite fossil resources. Current generation bioplastics are produced using abundant and cost effective sources of plant starches and sugars such as corn, sugar beet, cassava and sugarcane. Scientists are working on using algae, bacteria, carbon dioxide and methane gas as next generation feedstocks that will further reduce the environmental impact of these materials.
Better end of life options
Another major benefit of producing compostable bio-based food packaging is that it can be diverted from landfill at the end of its life and composted along with any remaining food residue, returning nutrients back into the soil.
What’s the difference between bioplastic and plastic with a biodegradable additive?
It can be quite a confusing landscape to navigate with various claims and technical terms, one should always be on the lookout for unscrupulous marketers attempting to fool the public into believing that they are better for the environment. The most common type of misleading marketing is for plastic products labelled as ‘degradable’, ‘biodegradable’ or even ‘landfill degradable’. Unlike bioplastics, degradable plastics are conventional plastics derived from fossil resources with an additive that the manufacturers claim will ensure the rapid biodegradation of the product.
The main problem with these claims is that there is no independently verified conclusive proof that the plastic will completely biodegrade. We now have the situation where these fragments could be ingested by microorganisms and eventually make their way up the food chain. It does not address the problem of using fossil resources for single use packaging and is certainly not a solution for littering. All they do is offer consumers and brand owners a false sense of sustainability.
Regulations are in place in many countries that restrict companies from making these unsubstantiated and misleading claims.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) say:
- “The inclusion of a pro-oxidant, such as manganese, in oxo-degradable polymers is claimed to promote fragmentation by UV irradiation and oxygen. The fate of these fragments (microplastics) is unclear, but it should be assumed that oxo-degradable polymers will add to the quantity of micro-plastics in the oceans, until overwhelming independent evidence suggests otherwise…
- “Oxo-degradable polymers do not fragment rapidly in the marine environment (i.e. persist > 2-5 years) and so manufactured items will continue to cause littering problems and lead to undesirable impacts….”
Recyclers are also having problems when these products end up in the recycling streams. Here is what North American Recycling Industry is saying about the use of these degradable additives use in bottles, forms, and films (2013):
- “Degradable additives that weaken products or shorten the useful life of durable plastics have a strongly negative impact of postconsumer plastics recycling
- “APR asks those who advocate and specify degradable additives to consider the sustainability implications of degradable additives that lower the functionality of recycled postconsumer plastics when included with recyclable plastics.”
The Association of Post consumer Plastics Recyclers in the US say:
- "Since mid-2009 APR has repeatedly asked those who sell and those who use oxo-degradable or biodegradable additives to consider the sustainability implications of those additives on the recyclability of packaging
- “The real concern is the impact of a degradable additive once the plastic is recycled and used in second and successive applications. A great deal of recycled plastic goes into carpeting, geo-textiles, strapping, plastic lumber, and pipe. All are long-lived uses. Some of these products have a 30 plus year expected life span. What happens if the polymer molecules break down during the expected service life? Failure and potentially expensive remediation likely result.”
- “APR is reinforcing its support of legislation … that would prohibit the use of the term ‘degradable and recyclable’ on the label of a container
BioPak bioplastic products can be commercially composted. A commercial compost facility utilizes the natural composting process. Compost naturally generates heat from the process of microorganisms breaking down the organic waste. In a commercial compost facility the temperature and humidity are closely monitored and controlled to optimize and speed up the process. The process most suitable for bioplastics requires a total compost time of 12 weeks.
Our bioplastic bags are certified Home Compostable to Australian AS4736 standards and will completely biodegrade in a home compost at the same rate as other organic waste.
Bioplastics do not decrease the quality of the compost created. All BioPak's compostable products have been certified to to EN13432 or AS4736. They are fully tested (inks, glues etc.) and approved for acceptance in suitable commercial compost facilities.
Limited commercial composts available
At BioPak we transparently communicate end of life options for our products. When we introduced bioplastic food service disposables into Australia in 2006 there were no compost facilities that would accept our products. As demand for these products has increased and more product is now in the market, the compost infrastructure has grown. The argument that no recycling facilities exist for a sustainable material does not mean that this material should not be used, rather we persevere and educate business owners and consumers on the benefits and help grow and support the recycling infrastructure as it becomes more commercially viable to process them.
Can bioplastics be recycled?
Technically bioplastics can be recycled and it has more end of life options than regular plastics including chemical recycling, mechanical recycling, incineration and composting. Currently there are only two recycling facilities globally that have the ability to recycle PLA bioplastics.
If a separate recycling stream for a certain plastic/bioplastic type exists, the bioplastic can be easily recycled alongside its conventional counterparts.
Bioplastics do not contaminate non-bioplastic recycling waste streams. Currently plastic recycling has a very sophisticated sorting and treatment procedure and the bioplastics are easily identified and separated.
What if I throw bioplastics into the bin?
Our bioplastic products are designed to return to the soil through composting.
It’s a common misconception that products sent to landfill should biodegrade. This is not the desired outcome of landfill waste, landfills are designed to entomb their contents and to remain stable after they are capped. If the contents biodegraded the landfill would subside. Organic products that do biodegrade in the anaerobic environment release methane gas which is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
PLA Bioplastic remains inert in landfill – which is actually preferred. And it has more end-of-life options than any other plastic currently on the market. It can be composted, mechanically recycled, chemically recycled back to lactic acid or incinerated.
The benefit of producing food packaging from a compostable material is that it provides the opportunity to divert organic waste from landfill. The fact that compost infrastructure is lacking is not a reason not to invest in compostable packaging materials. Currently a third of all household waste is organic and it is ending up in landfill. This situation is rapidly improving all around the world and includes in Australia and New Zealand where government led initiatives to divert organics from landfill via composting are gaining traction.
The recycling industry has always lagged behind the introduction of new materials. When PET bottles were first introduced they were not recycled and the same can be said for aluminium and metal cans. Only when sufficient demand for a raw material exists does recycling make commercial sense. There are MANY materials that are recyclable but don’t get recycled because the commercial incentives do not add up – it can be cheaper to landfill most products rather than recycle ESPECIALLY when commodity prices take a dive.
Is contamination an issue?
It is not true that recycle facilities cannot sort the plastic from bioplastic?
This is again a common misconception, and an invalid argument against the adoption of bioplastics. The reality is numerous grades of plastic used in consumer package are not compatible with each other and many look very similar. The only way to identify these from a consumer perspective is to look for the plastics identifiers on the pack (1 to 7). When these different grades of plastic end up at a material recycling facility they are mixed and then separated by means of optical scanners and infrared sorting. This is true for bioplastic which using this same technology can easily be separated from mixed plastic streams.
Do bioplastics use agricultural resources?
Yes, most of the current commercially available bioplastics are made from plant-starch.
Plants absorb carbon dioxide during their growth and convert it into carbon-rich organic matter. When these materials are used in the production of bioplastics the carbon is stored within the products during their useful life. This carbon is then released back into the atmosphere eg. through energy recovery or composting.
Production of bioplastic has little to no effect on food prices or supply. In 2013 the global production capacities for bioplastics amounted to around 1.6 million tonnes. This translates into approximately 600,000 hectares of land. The surface area required to grow sufficient feedstock for today’s bioplastic production is therefore about 0.01% of the global agricultural area of 5 billion hectares. This ratio correlates to the size of an average cherry tomato next to the Eiffel Tower (based on market data by EUBP/IfBB/nova-Institute, 2014).
Assuming continued high – and maybe even politically supported – growth in the bioplastics market, at the current stage of technological development a market of around 6.7 million tonnes accounting for about 1.3 million hectares could be achieved by the year 2018, which equates to approximately 0.02% of the global agricultural area.
There are also many opportunities – including using an increased share of food residues, non-food crops or cellulosic biomass, methane gas and CO2 – that could lead to even less land use demand for bioplastics than the amount given above.
Are GMO crops used?
The use of GMO crops is not a technical requirement for the manufacturing of any bioplastic commercially available today. If GM crops are used, the reasons lie in the economic or regional feed stock supply situation. If GM crops are used in bioplastic production, the multiple-stage processing and high heat used to create the polymer removes all traces of genetic material. This means that the final bioplastic product contains no genetic traces. The resulting bioplastic is therefore well suited to use in food packaging as it contains no genetically modified material and cannot interact with the contents.
Much of the bioplastic we use is from Natureworks, the pioneer and industry leader in bioplastic. They are a subsidiary of Cargill who do process GMO corn seeds. They were the first to commercialise bioplastic, the cheap source of plant starch from corn made this possible. As demand grows new companies are now offering bioplastic from non-GM crops – the next stage of bioplastic development will see a move away from agricultural crops to more sustainable alternatives such as methane and cellulose. There are already a number of innovative bioplastics made from abundant organic ‘waste’ streams including sewage, blood and algae to name a few.
It’s important to bear in mind that this is a relatively new industry when you consider that conventional plastics have been in development for more than 70 years. Bioplastic technology is certainly not perfect but we should not let perfect be the enemy of good. By supporting these technologies now, we are able to evolve and continue our journey towards producing packaging (and beyond) that is truly sustainable.
Are bioplastics promoting a throw-away society?
We agree that reusable packaging is best – we offer a better alternative for occasions that require hygienic and safe single-use solutions.
We are striving to promote and adopt the circular economy model whereby products are sustainably produced and effectively recycled in a closed loop cycle instead of the current linear model we have in place.
It’s true there are current infrastructure issues regarding the best disposal outcomes but there are a number of independent research papers that show the environmental benefits of bioplastic made from renewable resources over plastics made from fossil resources.
We all know the current status quo is not sustainable, plastics continue to pollute our environment and enter our food chain. In Australia, we landfill 1.8 million tons of plastic EVERY YEAR! Whilst conventional plastics most definitely have their place, they are not a good option for single-use disposables that are used for a couple of hours at most before being discarded.
We are not littering friendly
We support proper disposal of our products and do not claim they will biodegrade in the environment or even landfill. And we strive to educate consumers and show them what is possible. We transparently discuss the limitations as well as the benefits of new products and introduce more sustainable product solutions.
We work with industry and government to develop and implement the necessary infrastructure.
We cannot wait for the government infrastructure to be available before we innovate, if we did this nothing would ever get done. Rather it’s up to the pioneers and entrepreneurs to challenge and change the status quo and of course the consumers to push for change with their own choices.