NatureWorks expects the bioplastics market to continue growing at “unprecedented rates,” says Mariagiovanna Vetere, global public affairs director, despite lacking differentiation in anti-plastic legislation.
“Fossil-based plastics have a 60-year head start on optimization for packaging and other applications versus bioplastics, so it’s fun to see the biopolymers industry develop to match performance attributes so quickly,” she highlights.
At the European Bioplastics Conference, Vetere will be moderating the session Bioplastics in Packaging, highlighting the challenges and opportunities for bioplastics in packaging over the next few years.
Ahead of the conference in Berlin, Germany, from November 30 to December 1, PackagingInsights speaks with Vetere about safety issues, legislative hurdles and new packaging applications.
This month, the Center for Environmental Health and Clean Production Action launched the GreenScreen Certified Standard for Food Serviceware, which Vetere views as a “new necessity” for all materials, including bioplastics.
GreenScreen certifies materials and food serviceware items as being free from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as well as thousands of other chemicals of concern.
“This [need] will be especially true for compostable plastics as US compostable items containing PFAS have been banned from compost infrastructure. In Europe, there is increasing concern around the use of these additives.”
Next to bisphenol and phthalates, research is showing how PFAS are widespread in consumer-facing packaging and potentially damaging to human health.
Last year, a report warned nearly half of all take-out food packaging tested across major US food chains – including Burger King, McDonald’s and Wendy’s – contain potentially toxic chemicals.
The Italian ideal?
While policymakers worldwide are addressing the bioplastics sector in multiple ways, a specific focus on bio-based and compostable materials is “still missing,” says Vetere.
“Policies based on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) can be a huge opportunity to develop fair systems allowing composting infrastructure to grow and innovative polymers to find their space,” she maintains.
EPR is an environmental policy approach extending the producer’s responsibility for a product’s life cycle to the post-, not just pre-consumer stage.
“The Italian EPR system dedicated to compostable plastics is a clear example of how policy can be a growth factor for the economy while improving the quality of the environment. Policy actions willing to promote recycled content in packaging should also take the opportunity to promote the use of bio-based content in packaging at the same time.”
This July, environmental campaigners reported the Italian government to the European Commission for passing legislation they say violates the EU Single Use Plastics Directive (SUPD).
Against EU advice, Italian authorities made exemptions for compostable and biodegradable plastics in their legal transposition, which was widely supported by compostable packaging producers like Tipa.
The EU SUPD not differentiating between conventional and bio-based or compostable plastics has indeed become a point of tension.
Last week, Huhtamaki’s CEO shared with PackagingInsights that “recycling is more important than compostability” as composting packaging materials arguably takes them out of the closed loop.
On the flip side, Tipa’s vice president of technology Dr. Eli Lancry argued that although recycling may theoretically keep plastic within a circular economy, practically it fails to do so.
“Recycling levels for flexible packaging hover around 6%, even in the most advanced markets, such as the UK. The rest is being sent to incineration or landfill,” he flagged.
Where Ingeo comes in
The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) set “ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets” for countries to reach net zero by the middle of the century.
Vetere warns of the “pervasive misconception” that plastic waste and the concept of a circular economy are independent of climate change concerns.
“To assume reducing and recycling are enough to reduce plastic waste and carbon footprints dramatically underestimates the carbon footprint improvements bio-based, compostable bioplastics can deliver.”
NatureWorks’ Ingeo PLA biopolymer has an “incredibly low carbon footprint” by design, says Vetere. “Our process uses agriculture to sequester greenhouse gases into sugars. This means we manufacture a biopolymer that has a carbon footprint 80% smaller than some petrochemical-based plastics. But that carbon impact is only the beginning of the story.”
In April, NatureWorks entered a strategic partnership with IMA Coffee to accelerate the North American market for compostable single-serve coffee pods. Later, in August, the PLA manufacturer announced the construction of its second PLA location in Thailand.
Avoiding methane production
The same Ingeo biopolymers can also be used to make compostable food packaging, such as tea bags or food containers.
“We’ve seen Ingeo PLA biopolymers used by Unilever’s brand PG Tips for tea bags across the UK where 42 billion are being produced annually. These fibers withstand boiling temperatures and mean the tea bag can be composted unlike when it was made with PE.”
Vetere further underscores compostable food packaging and serviceware helps keep more food waste out of landfills where it generates methane. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, food breaking down in landfills is the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the US.
“Instead, compostable tea bags or food containers make it easy to divert more food waste to composting where it helps create a nutrient-rich soil amendment improving both biodiversity and the ability for soils to sequester CO2.”
“Understanding how the effects of our product cascade through supply chains is so critically important. We may be a materials manufacturer, but we need to understand how our material impacts the whole life cycle of materials so we can tailor our efforts for a long-term sustainability benefit,” Vetere concludes.
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