Transitioning to bioplastics in packaging value chains
Decarbonization across value chains is integral to companies’ ability to transform to net zero. However, companies can struggle to decarbonize their packaging value chains, which largely depend on plastics. Some companies are assessing how to reduce emissions throughout the plastics manufacturing process, exploring end-of-life solutions or substituting plastics materials altogether.
Bioplastics have emerged as a promising innovation to decarbonize this value chain. Yet there are significant challenges related to implementing bioplastics use at scale, both as a full or partial substitute to plastics.
Increased corporate ambition to find lower emission alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics has led to the demand for bioplastics to outstrip supply, with bioplastics representing only 1% of the plastic produced annually, and to companies trialling potential bioplastic solutions.
To support companies looking at decarbonizing packaging, Transform to Net Zero is sharing the findings from some of its members’ initiatives to replace fossil fuel-derived plastic packaging with bioplastic. Topics include:
- Technical aspects of bioplastics
- Integration of bioplastic packaging into existing supply chains and processes
- End-of-life treatment of bioplastics
There are several barriers to overcome when switching to bioplastics. These primarily concern the use of the product; keeping costs low enough that it would not affect customers; and barriers to reusing, recycling, and/or composting the packaging. Of these barriers, the remaining disparity in functional performance between the fossil fuel-derived plastics and bioplastics poses a major challenge. In short, bioplastics could be the way to go, but solutions are lacking.
Technical aspects of bioplastics
Companies struggle with finding bioplastics that can live up to requirements for use, which is paramount for companies such as Starbucks. Traditional plastics retain functional performance in the presence of extreme heat, cold, and moisture, which make them practical for multi-purpose use.
Bioplastics must achieve the same functionality and resistance to a variety of extreme conditions to be widely adopted for food service packaging and by other sectors. However, developing bioplastic packaging that is equally resistant is a complex science. For example, many factors are considered in the development of an item such as a tub of hummus, e.g., the need for a moisture barrier, seals to protect from oxygen exposure, flow through capability for some compounds, and food safety considerations.
Any changes to the composition of the packaging material will then face additional regulatory hurdles. In the United States, for example, such changes require renewed FDA approval, which can delay the proliferation of the new product and can pose additional challenges to recycling. Even within bioplastics, the FDA must review any changes to the material to approve it for home composting.
PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates) has proven to be a promising bioplastic from the early testing stage, which is uncommon. An advantage of PHA is that it can be derived from waste material like waste cooking oil, waste from farm practices, or rapeseed oil. PHA is being used with some success in single-use plastics and thermoform plastic application, but scaling beyond this requires further research and development.
Integrating bioplastic packaging into existing supply chains and processes
Production of both fossil fuel-derived plastics and bioplastics is complicated, and each technology requires unique production lines.
Switching to bioplastics can thus get very expensive for suppliers because of required equipment changes, resulting in higher costs of plastic materials production that risk getting passed on to the customer. One of the main drivers of scalability is cost, and to be cost effective, bioplastics must integrate into high-speed, large-scale manufacturing processes. The demands of this process expose the limitations of today’s bioplastics that still need to be addressed.
In addition, while bioplastics provide a viable pathway to address emissions associated with packaging, the source of the bioplastic itself is important.
The sustainability of bioplastics can vary depending on the feedstock used to produce it. Responsible selection of feedstock is important, as is developing responsible models for sourcing these raw materials. To preserve the integrity of the environmental benefits that bioplastics provide, feedstocks for bioplastics should be grown using sustainable agricultural practices through regulated supply chains and, where possible, should be sourced from recycled waste products from other consumer and industrial processes (e.g., waste cooking oil).
End-of-life treatment of bioplastics
As with plastic production, recycling infrastructure is usually specific to the materials used. Any newly developed packaging material must be compatible with current recycling equipment at facilities. For example, some facilities do not accept mixed-material items. Pilots by Transform to Net Zero member companies have shown that bioplastics are actually less recyclable than existing products, some of which are recyclable in only a few markets in the US.
It is also important to consider consumer behavior, which can alter the intended end-of-life process of the product. For example, consumers might not compost their disposable cup even if it was compostable. Consumer education is important to provide a better understanding of the differences between “industrially compostable”, “home compostable”, and “biodegradable”. Many believe that because something is “compostable”, it will breakdown effectively, even in a landfill, which is not accurate.
Through collaborations and partnerships to increase the use of bioplastics, companies can share the costs of helping recycling facilities develop the adequate infrastructure to process these new materials.
Context: Decarbonizing the Plastics Value Chain
The plastic packaging value chain is difficult to decarbonize due to its fossil fuel-derived, emissions-intensive production process. Upstream emissions from fossil fuel extraction and refining to create plastics is a major greenhouse gas hotspot for all fossil fuel-based plastic resins, with at least 118 million metric tons of CO2e per year attributable to global plastic production.
At the other end of the value chain with disposal and end-of-life treatment, demand for recycled content is outstripping supply. Less than 20% of plastic waste is currently recycled globally due to a combination of production and consumption growth, and an inefficient global waste management system. With 39.6% of global plastics production going towards packaging and 95% of that going towards single-use plastics, upstream supplier and peer and consumer engagement are critical to finding and scaling viable solutions to plastic use in packaging.