Bigging up bioplastics packaging?

Packaging Professional magazine
13 Nov 2009
Twinnings tea bags wrapped in home compostable film Natureflex © Innovia Films

The need for ‘brand identity’, ‘joined-up thinking’ and
‘communication’ might sound like hollow slogans brandished in corporate
meetings and literature, but putting them into action could set the
tone for a more cohesive and better understood bioplastics packaging
industry. Rupal Mehta reports on a conference in London, UK, that
explored the challenges ahead.

As the Biopackaging – From Feedstock to Waste Stream conference in
London, UK, got underway on 9 September, the need for collaboration and
clarity to address the use, disposal and sustainability of bio-based,
biodegradable and compostable plastics in packaging became a hot topic.
So much so that traditional paper, corrugated and cartonboard
biopackaging did not get much of a look in.

‘Bioplastics are sexy for politicians but they might raise expectations
with the consumer that are difficult to fulfil,’ said Joachim Quoden,
General Manager for Pro Europe, the organisation for European packaging
waste recovery and recycling schemes, based in Brussels, Belgium.

Clearer messages about what these plastics are, and how to identify and
dispose of them are therefore essential, not just for the consumer, but
for the waste management companies as well. Stuart Reynolds, an
independent consultant in waste management at CSR Associates, UK, made
this point in his presentation to the packaging materials suppliers in
the audience. He said, ‘When you consider the design of your products,
think beyond the consumer to the poor bloke who has to pick them up and
sort them’.

This approach becomes increasingly important as the market for these
materials steadily grows. Many big brands and retailers are introducing
bottles, flow wrap and thermoformed trays comprising conventional
polymers such as PET made from the sugarcane and molasses (Coca-Cola)
and new plastics such as a home compostable film made from wood-pulp

‘Bio-based and biodegradable plastics are now entering a critical stage
of their growth phase,’ noted Hariharan Ramasubramanian, an Industry
Analyst from international consultancy firm Frost and Sullivan. ‘We are
expecting the global demand to be more than 100,000t by 2011.’ A
database developed at the University of Applied Sciences in Hanover,
Germany, which enables materials specifiers to compare bioplastic
properties, currently stores about 100 different manufacturers and 370
materials or grades, revealed researcher Andrea Sieber-Raths.

So whatever your stance on the environmental credentials of these
plastics, they are here to stay. And as consumer and media scrutiny of
packaging’s sustainability intensifies, with added pressure from
European regulations, these materials are viewed as one element of the
solution and will coexist alongside conventional packaging materials.

Moving the goal posts

Recyclability is becoming more of a focus for those involved in
developing and using bioplastics, opening up the debate on how to
dispose of these materials. It represents a shift from the previous
narrow emphasis on the materials’ biodegradability and compostability
credentials, which has invited ‘green’ interest, followed by confusion,
concern and criticism. This is because not all bio-based plastics are
biodegradable or compostable (and not all biodegradable plastics are
bio-based), and those that are require strict environmental conditions
for disposal, which many European countries lack the infrastructure

‘Associating bioplastics with biodegradation and, in turn, a throwaway
mentality is probably the worst possible start for this new
technology,’ suggested one delegate.

Speaker Françoise Gerardi, of the French Plastic and Flexible Packaging
Association, responded, ‘It started with biodegradation but now we are
talking about recycling them. The potential for recycling was not clear
for these materials three years ago. [Also] recovering energy from
waste is a good option if recycling is not technically, economically or
environmentally viable’.

Polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from corn starch, has previously
been promoted as suitable for industrial composting. Erwin Vink, of PLA
supplier Natureworks, presented a new ‘end-of-life vision’ where
composting is only desirable for food-contaminated PLA packaging. The
ideal scenario, he says, is chemically recycling the material by
hydrolysis back to lactic acid for further reprocessing into PLA resin.

This ‘Loopla’ system has been developed by Galactic, which opened a
1,500t lactic acid recovery plant in Escanaffles, Belgium, in
September. There are three different pathways for reprocessing the
waste to create PLA of different purities, suitable for end uses in
industrial or food-grade products.

However, while PLA producers assert that the bio-based plastic can be
sorted from PET in industrial or post-consumer waste using
near-infrared technology, waste managers argue that the practicalities
of introducing the instrumentation, and then sorting and transferring
PLA for reprocessing are problematic, particularly during a recession.

Reynolds said, ‘With the current climate, it is difficult to get
entrepreneurial investment in new technology. The waste industry needs
certainty in the markets for a waste stream, then it will be quick to
address that. Facilities do not have the time to handle and sort every
quirk in packaging’.

This poses the catch-22 position of needing larger quantities of
material in the market and a definite end use for its waste before the
associated infrastructure can develop.

Andy Sweetman, Global Marketing Manager for Innovia Films, noted,
‘Sometimes you need the [packaging] solution to create demand for the
infrastructure’. The company, headquartered in Wigton, UK, supplies the
home compostable wood pulp-based film that Nestlé uses for its Quality
Street chocolates. ‘It is also suitable for anaerobic digestion,’ said
Sweetman. ‘We are undergoing a recycling revolution but the problem is
that flexible packaging is contaminated with food, printed and
laminated, and so is not easy to recycle.’

Deciding how and on which lines to build a modern waste management
infrastructure requires holistic consideration of the options by all
key stakeholders on an economic and environmental basis. Each route, be
it recycling, recovering energy from waste, home or industrial
composting, or biodegradation is at various stages of development in
different European countries, and each method has pros and cons. But
ultimately, ‘bioplastics have to meet the demands of the European Waste
Directive’, insisted Gerardi.

Brand awareness

Creating materials with different end-of-life options poses logistical
difficulties for not only waste management facilities, but also
consumers. Many of the delegates concluded that clear branding using
labels, colour codes and instructions are vital so that individuals can
easily identify what the bioplastic is and which bin it needs to go in,
or how exactly to home compost it. Educating consumers and local
authorities will dispel preconceived ideas – industry compostable
packs, for example, can go in the same bin as organic food waste, but
non-compostable packs will contaminate this stream.

Bruno de Wilde of Organic Waste Systems, in Ghent, Belgium, described
how in Switzerland ‘compostable packaging has a green line’. He said,
‘You need to continually communicate. Local authorities are not
specialists in this, retailers are’.

Quoden added that claims about a material’s disposal route should only
be made if it is the most sustainable option and there is existing
infrastructure to reprocess the material, to avoid misleading the
consumer. Saying a pack is made from 70% biodegradable material
confuses customers about what they should do with it at end of life.
Furthermore, telling a consumer that a pack is made from renewable
resources is only useful if it genuinely has better environ-mental
peformance over its lifecycle.

Taking control

Responsible use of bioplastics and branding is therefore vital to move
forward, ensuring that the right materials are selected, presenting the
most sustainable option over the pack’s lifecycle and without
compromising the manufacturing process or packaging functionality
(which would inadvertedly increase product waste).

Technical development of bioplastics is ongoing, and companies like
Natureworks are also looking to use non-food plants and agricultural
waste sources to address criticism that bioplastics increase food
prices by creating heightened competition for the feedstock.

Gerardi concluded, ‘For us, it’s not an option [of choosing] between
fossil fuel and bio-based plastics, it’s just about diversification. We
don’t want to stop innovation but we need to work on getting it right,
as otherwise we will lose credit very quickly’.

Joined-up thinking between materials suppliers, retailers, designers
and waste managers is required. Sweetman said, ‘We are continually
compared to the conventional plastics industry, which has big economies
of scale. But you cannot compare [the two] as we do not have the
efficiency as yet’. There is a long way to go, and the bioplastics
industry appears to acknowledge that.

Further information: Intertechpira