What Are Bioplastics and How Can They Help You Reach Your Sustainability Goals?

By Zach Muscato, Corporate Sustainability Manager, Plastic Ingenuity

First off, what are bioplastics?

Bioplastics are an option to reduce the use of virgin plastics derived from fossil fuels. They’re an emerging technology with a lot of interest but also a lot of confusion. Many who’ve heard the term “bioplastics” think only of biodegradable packaging, but it’s so much more than that. Bioplastics are a polymer made from renewable sources, with an emphasis on circularity for sustainability — not just recycling or composting. This gives manufacturers the option to pack even more sustainability into their products.

Bioplastic origin materials can be anything carbon-based, such as corn byproducts, sugar cane, mushrooms, yard waste, lumber scrap, etc. Bio-based polymers are identical on a molecular level to polymers made from fossil fuels. However, they do come with a few challenges. Bioplastics require a higher investment, as they are less cost-effective than fossil fuels. Additionally, if corn or other crops are used as the source material, steps need to be taken to ensure the crops are produced as sustainably as possible, given the significant environmental impact of current agricultural methods.

Ultimately, even if recycling and reuse increase dramatically, there is an ongoing need for virgin polymers to meet global demand. Regardless of the obstacles, there is an opportunity emerging to do that with bioplastics.

What types of bioplastics are available?

Conventional polymers, like PET, PP and HDPE, can be made from bio-based sources. These will not biodegrade easily but can be recycled at end of life if the article is designed for recycling and the needed recycling infrastructure is accessible in the region of use. Improvements to existing recycling systems will certainly be necessary to keep up. Compostable materials can also contribute to a more circular system, especially for packaging items that are heavily contaminated by the product and thus not suitable for recycling.

Polylactic Acid (PLA) is the most well-known and commonly used bio-based plastic in the market today. PLA is compostable in specific industrial composting conditions and is commonly used in plastic foodservice packaging like drink cups and lids, and cutlery. Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) and Polyethylene Furanoate (PEF) are additional bio-based polymers entering the market for enhanced compostability and performance.

These bio-based materials tend to have higher embodied water usage than fossil fuel-derived polymers since they are derived from a grown agricultural crop. It is a trade-off stakeholders have to consider when pondering a conversion to bioplastics.

Which industry(ies) could benefit from bioplastics?

The healthcare industry stands to gain a lot from bio-based packaging. They have aggressive carbon reduction and Scope 3 emission reduction goals, and currently lack needed recycling infrastructure. Plus, there are FDA restrictions on the use of recycled materials in sterile barrier system (SBS) packaging to ensure patient safety.

Advanced recycling methods that break down or remove the impurities from a polymer provide one solution. Bioplastics are a new technology that could be applied in the longer term.

Conventional plastics, like PET and PP, made from bio-sources are more of a focus for healthcare than degradable bioplastics like PLA and PHA. And bio-based sources (like ethanol) can be diverted to any petroleum-based product without affecting existing infrastructure. Of course, mass balance processes and ISCC PLUS certification will be necessary to provide chain-of-custody proof that records the recycled or bio-based materials used throughout the manufacturing of a particular product.

Also, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Global Commitment has a stated 21% aggregated virgin plastic reduction target by 2025. CPG brands and retailers could consider bio-based plastics to reduce their plastic usage derived from fossil fuels to help meet that goal.

How do I know if bioplastics are right for my company?

As surveyed by Plastic Ingenuity, 18% of sustainability stakeholders listed “maximize bioplastic content” as a goal their company is working toward. That increases to 23% for stakeholders in the healthcare industry. When considering bioplastics for their packaging portfolios, decision makers should consider how the benefits and trade-offs of bioplastics align with their organization’s sustainability goals and the needs of their consumers. If a brand aims for recyclable packaging and decreased fossil fuel utilization, bio-based PET may be a viable material solution to consider.

Stakeholders should address the full impact of a transition to bioplastics by conducting a holistic life cycle assessment. Collaborating with supply chain partners who understand the nuances of bioplastics and can help navigate the landscape is crucial for successful implementation.

About the Author:

Zach Muscato is the Corporate Sustainability Manager for Plastic Ingenuity, a leading custom thermoformer based in Madison, Wisconsin.

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