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Busted: Common myths and misconceptions around compostable plastics

While growing ecological awareness and changing consumer demands are leading to a boom in the research and development of more sustainable products with a reduced environmental footprint such as bioplastics, there are a few persistent myths and misconceptions that need to be set straight once and for all. Like most myths, they are inspired by reality, but are mixing up fact and fiction and, in this case, are ultimately unhelpful to a budding industry that is solidly progressing toward a resource-efficient and sustainable future.

Misconception 1: All bioplastics are biodegradable/compostable

It is an easy mistake to make, but not all bioplastics are biodegradable. Quite the contrary, the main feature of many bioplastics is the fact that they are made from renewable resources, biomass. Most of these biobased materials are durable commodity plastics such as bio-PE or bio-PET with the same properties as their conventional counterparts. Neither PE nor PET is biodegradable, which demonstrates that the feedstock basis of a material has nothing to do with its characteristic to biodegrade. Biodegradability is an inherent feature of a material and its chemical structure. Bioplastics are a diverse family of materials with different properties. There are three main groups: Biobased, non-biodegradable materials such as PE, PET or polyamides; biobased and biodegradable materials such as PLA, PHA, and starch blends; and fossil-based, biodegradable materials such as PBAT which are mainly used as a blend for biobased and biodegradable plastics. Biodegradability is an additional feature that adds value for specific applications, such as biowaste bags or food packaging. It is not, however, the single defining attribute of bioplastics.

Misconception 2: Biodegradability is the same as compostability

Strictly speaking, biodegradation is but a collective term for a natural chemical process in which materials are transformed into natural substances such as water, carbon and biomass with the help of microorganisms. Biodegradation can occur in many different environments (soil, marine environment, composting and fermentation facilities, etc.) and under varying conditions (absence or presence of oxygen, bacteria or fungi) and at different levels of influencing factors, such as temperature, humidity and timeframe. In order to be able to make any substantial claim on the biodegradability of a material or product, all these different factors need to be taken into consideration. Resorting to acknowledged standards, which are more than a mere testing method and provide clearly defined pass/fail criteria, is the most commonly accepted way of doing so.

The European Standard for industrial compostability, EN 13432, for instance, defines the minimum requirements that materials have to meet in order to be processed in industrial composting plants (timeframe, temperature, humidity, etc.). If these requirements are not met or can’t be proven, any reference to the standard or claims about compostability of the product would be considered greenwashing.

Wherever there’s a successful innovation, you will find “free riders” attempting to piggyback on the good reputation of products that adhere to accepted standards, without fulfilling the latter. This hampers the market development for environmentally responsible, standard-adhering products and potentially poses a threat to the environment. European Bioplastics, the European association of the bioplastics industry, has long been warning against the malpractice of producers of additive-mediated plastics, including oxo-degradable plastics, falsely claiming that their materials (bio)degrade. These claims have not been scientifically proven and do not comply with any of the acknowledged standards for biodegradability and industrial composting (ASTM D6400 or EN 13432). Furthermore, in a recently published peer reviewed publication, scientists at Michigan State University’s School of Packaging and the MSU’s Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering department concluded that “no evidence was found that these [degradable] additives promote and/or enhance biodegradation of PE or PET polymers.”

Yet, the harm has been done. In a recent post published on the PlasticsToday blog, the editor has fallen into the same trap, offering a company called ENSO, a degradable additive supplier, as an example of what she calls “reasonable alternatives” to compostable products. What she doesn’t mention is that California’s Attorney General filed a first-of-its-kind “greenwashing” lawsuit against ENSO, over alleged false and misleading marketing claims on their degradable additives. Products based on the ENSO additives have apparently since disappeared from the shelves. This case demonstrates that the key to the success of emerging biotechnologies are acknowledged standards and stricter guidelines on how to communicate these claims in order to allow for informed consumer choices.

On the other hand, the value proposition for compostable plastics is well recognized in the market and at the municipal level. Compostable products are a key tool in the zero waste programs successfully implemented by major municipalities such as Seattle and San Francisco. In fact “the ASTM Standard Specification for Compostable Plastics D6400” is explicitly called out in California law (SB-567). The same law also prohibits “the sale of plastic packaging and plastic products that are labelled with the terms biodegradable, degradable or decomposable,” which has found bioplastics producers and the recycling industry unanimously in strong support, because it precisely eliminates the sort of false and misleading marketing claims that can otherwise occur.

Misconception 3: Compostable plastics are the solution to landfills and littering

Biodegradable materials are often wrongly presented as a way to help minimize the amount of waste in countries that have no existing waste management infrastructure. Yet, biodegradable plastics should not and cannot be considered a solution to the problem of littering and landfilling. In fact, littering must never be promoted or accepted for any kind of waste. Instead, the issue needs to be addressed by educative and informative measures to raise awareness for proper and controlled ways of management, disposal and (organic) recycling.

Municipalities are now deeply engaged with the complexities of handling their solid waste streams. Bioplastics are suitable for a broad range of end-of-life options, including reuse, mechanical or organic recycling, and energy recovery. The use of compostable plastics makes separate biowaste collection a more valuable option and helps divert more organic waste from recycling streams or from landfills and increases the volume of valuable biomass (compost). Cities like Seattle and San Francisco in the United States and entire countries like the Netherlands recognize and capitalize on the role of certified compostable products in that endeavor. Misleading claims about “false benefits” of biodegradability only distract from what we as a society really need to be focusing on: Getting better at diverting valuable material streams away from landfills.

Hasso von Pogrell is Managing Director of European Bioplastics.

 

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Sustainable Packaging Solutions For Our Future

Busy Lifestyles and Food Industry

The value of packaging produced in Australia is estimated to be $10-10.5 billion while it is around USD300 billion globally. The food and beverage sector uses almost 65 – 70% of all Australian produced packaging.

It is not difficult to understand the reason for this. As lifestyles across Australian cities become faster and busier, the packaging industry is growing. Busy lifestyles in Australian cities have led to people wanting more ready-to-eat meals on the go, quick, pre-cut, pre-portioned quick cook meals at home or even single serve beverages and quick snacks while they are on the run.

Keeping up with the pace of life and the demand for convenience have been the advancements in food packing technology. Today, there are innovative products that are easy to open, dispense from, reseal and store foods fresh for long.

Innovations in Ballarat graphic design packaging have made food easier to handle, prepare, consume while maintaining the freshness and quality of the original produce. The new materials are lighter in weight and higher performing. Moreover, the food looks great and appeals to the prospective buyer too.

Packaging Materials Used in Australia

Roughly about 35% of the packaging materials used in Australia are paper, board (cartons etc.). Another 30% of the packaging market is plastic which includes PET, PVC, polypropylene and polystyrene. Plastics have rapidly gained share from being only 10% of the market in the early 1960s. Metals such as Aluminium, Steel and other material like glass make up the balance share.

Their Impact on the Environment?

Roughly 60% of these packaging materials are recycled. The balance packaging ends up in landfills where they can take thousands of years to disintegrate completely, releasing toxic harmful gasses in the process.

Did you know that many common packages such as potato chip bags or pizza boxes are not recyclable?

A typical snack chip bag is made up of multiple layers of foil and plastic. They are light-weight, easy to label and occupy less space on the shelves making them the choice of manufacturers and retailers. However, there is no technology available to separate the layers which is required in order to recycle these bags. As a result, they end up occupying expensive landfill real estate for years on end.

A pizza box or other take-out containers made of cardboard ought to be recyclable. However, in reality, whenever cheese or food pieces stick to these boxes, they become un-recyclable and head to the landfills.

Australian Packaging Covenant

The environment has been a major concern for the national food packaging industry for several decades. This, coupled with pressures from the consumers, supply chain and the Government led to the launch of the Australian Packaging Covenant (originally the National Packaging Covenant).

This Covenant has been the key instrument for managing the environmental aspects of packaging in Australia since 1999. Currently in its third iteration, it is a voluntary arrangement between stakeholders of the Australian packaging industry and the key players at all forms of Government. In its current iteration, the Covenant aimed to have reached a target of 70% recycling of all packaging materials by June 2015.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian packaging industry this target may not be met given the amount of plastic being imported as Australia’s industry moved offshore. The current covenant has been given an extension of a year till July 2016.

Consumers Leading The Corporates

Consumers have started to care more about sustainability. A web-based survey by The Consumer Network, Inc showed that in the United States, approximately 35% men and 45% women were willing to pay more for recyclable packaging.

It is no wonder then, that many large corporates have been investing millions of dollars to come up with sustainable food packaging innovation. In the early 1970s, Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds spent millions of dollars on research. Based on the studies done by the Stanford Research Institute, polystyrene was chosen as the packaging material of choice for McDonalds as it was found to be less polluting as compared to paperboard. In 1993, they started using corrugated micro-flute that not only weighed less, used post-consumer fibre, corn starch adhesive and soy-based inks for its manufacture.

Another large company which has done a lot to further the cause of the use of post-consumer fibres in the food packaging industry is Starbucks. They spent four years with their partners to develop a cup which contained 10% post-consumer fibres. The FDA approved the cup to be in direct contact with food which began to be used in 2006 and has now been adopted by Starbucks in
its locations worldwide.

In 2012, Starbucks introduced new hot-sleeves which required fewer raw materials to be made, while increasing the amount of post-consumer content. This new sleeve is currently being used in the United States and Canada. According to the company, the increased use of post-consumer fibre has led to a saving of nearly 100,000 trees.

Renewable Food Packaging Materials in the 21st Century

Today, there are many bio-based food packaging materials. These are materials which have been derived from annually renewable sources.

The twentieth century had seen the rise of the use of petroleum-derived chemicals as packaging material because of their physical and chemical properties such as lightness, strength, and resistance to water and water-based micro-organisms.

The turn of the century saw attention being given to environmental factors such as sustainability and the ability to recycle. Materials from non-renewable sources such as those from petroleum began to be replaced with those from renewable sources, essentially those derived from plants and their by-products.

One such innovation is to make products out of sugar cane fibre or bagasse, which is the pulp material remaining after the extraction of the sugar-bearing juice from sugar cane. Bagasse can be used for making products normally made from plastic or paper. It also helps avoid the pollution caused to the environment by the burning of the sugarcane pulp after juice extraction. What is more, sugar cane is a readily renewable resource. Products made from sugarcane pulp are fully compostable and will usually compost between 30 – 90 days depending upon the composting facility.

Polylactide (PLA) is another plastic like compound made from the fermentation and distillation of dextrose into lactic acid. The dextrose is derived from starch-rich plant sources such as corn sugar. PLA behave like a plastic, however, it is made from renewable sources and can be fully composted at a commercial composting facility.

Similarly, corn starch and cellulose based polymers are also being used in the food packaging industry. These too are derived from annually renewable sources and take between 45 – 180 days to compost in optimal composting conditions.

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For sustainable packaging solutions, visit Environmental Enterprises. Environmental Enterprises is a supplier of certified, biodegradable/compostable sustainable packaging alternatives to the market place. For product, pricing & ordering contact Wayne on 02 9634 5697/0417 206 755 or visit their website to learn more.

Did you know that using cloth towels instead of using paper towels saves 50% of landfill space from paper wastes? There are continuous towel dispensers that you can install to ensure a hygienic workplace without creating wastes. It can save trees too. Choose the greener option!

Photo Courtesy: “Fried Fish and French Fries”. Licensed under Public Domain
via Commons.

 

www.alsco.com.au

Food Processing Magazine November/December 2015

Biodegradable fruit and vegie bags mandatory in France

France has introduced a law to make bio-based, biodegradable fruit and vegetable bags mandatory. Introduced as part of a wide-ranging set of reforms on energy transition and green growth, bioplastic lightweight bags for fruits and vegetables, as well as some other types of packaging, will need to be bio-based and compostable in home composting from 1 January 2017.

The French law has also banned oxo-fragmentable plastics, which are durable, fossil-based plastics with artificial additives, that cause the plastic to fragment into micro-particles. They do not meet the European norms for compostability and the new law prohibits the production, distribution, sale, provision and utilisation of packaging or bags made partially or completely from oxo-fragmentable plastics. The move was welcomed by bioplastics industry bodies. “These provisions represent an important step for the French bioplastics industry, which has invested more than 40 million euros in the last 15 years,” said Christophe Doukhi-de Boissoudy, president of French association Club Bio-plastiques. “France has taken a step forward to the responsible consumption of plastic materials and to treating waste as a valuable resource. Bioplastic materials will contribute their share to its environmentally responsible economic growth,” said François de Bie, chairman of the board of European Bioplastics.

www.foodprocessing.com.au

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Bioplastics Glossary – (from the European Bioplastics Magazine)

This very useful Bioplastics glossary has been provided by European Bioplastics Magazine.

Bioplastics (as defined by European Bioplastics e.V.) is a term used to define two different kinds of plastics:

a. Plastics based on renewable resources (the focus is the origin of the raw material used). These can be biodegradable or not.

b.  Biodegradable and compostable plastics according to EN13432 or similar standards (the focus is the compostability of the final product; biodegradable and compostable plastics can be based on renewable (biobased) and/or non-renewable (fossil) resources).

Bioplastics may be

– based on renewable resources and biodegradable

– based on renewable resources but not be biodegradable

– based on fossil resources and biodegradable

For the full glossary of terms click here 

www.bioplasticsmagazine.com/bioplasticsmagazine-wAssets/docs/Glossary.pdf

What is ” Certified Compostable”? Find out here…

Wondering what your product or material should do to be able to claim conformance to the Australian Standards and be classified as ” certified compostable” for industrial composting or for home composting?
Download the flyer here to get quick and simple information on how to make sure that you comply.

ABA Certified Compostable

9th European Bioplastics Conference

The 9th European Bioplastics Conference is being held in Brussels from the 2nd-3rd December 2014. Attached you will find the programme preview, details of the exhibitors and sponsors.
9th EuBP Conference 2014

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Sustainability Matters – A Must Read Article

Packaging has an important role to play in sustainability.
This ‘must read’ article titled “Future trends for packaging and its role in sustainability” which appears in the February-March edition of Sustainability News explains so much with a few familiar names appearing throughout.
Sustainability Matters Article Feb_March 2015