Plexpack / Uncategorized / What are Bioplastics anyway? Key Terms to Know on Sustainable Packaging

What are Bioplastics anyway? Key Terms to Know on Sustainable Packaging

By | Uncategorized | June 10th, 2021 | Comments (1)

Last year, following the actions taken by the EU in 2018, the Canadian government announced a ban on single-use plastics to be put in place by 2022 and set a goal of zero plastic waste by 2030.

This means big change for Canada and Canadian business.

As more single-use plastic bans come into place and the calls for sustainable practices in plastics- particularly in packaging- grow, there is more and more talk of sustainable alternative packaging materials- or as they are coming to be known, “Bioplastics.” As a member of the packaging community, Plexpack is dedicated to understanding our role in the shift towards sustainable practices and sustainable materials. To build this understanding, we are researching every relevant aspect of these materials and their adoption. We hope to share some of what we learn with the Plexpack community.

Key Terms To Know

Many of the alternative packaging materials coming into regular production are biodegradable/compostable. Generally, these alternatives are considered better than conventional plastics because they shouldn’t persist in the environment for the same length of time and shouldn’t add toxic substances to the environment. However, nowadays, greenwashing can make it challenging to understand just how “green” a product- particularly sustainable packaging- really is. With terms such as “compostable,” “degradable,” “bioplastic,” or “bio-based” used nearly everywhere, it can be difficult for most consumers to understand where a product came from and in what waste stream it belongs without extensive research. In Plexpack’s research, we have come across a few key terms that we believe are vital to understanding the world of sustainable packaging- so here’s what we think you should know:

Biodegradable vs. Compostable

Let’s start with the difference between biodegradable and compostable. To many people, these words are interchangeable, and in fact, they refer to the same kind of process

  • Biodegradable refers to the ability of a material to break down into water, carbon, and biomass (organic matter) by biological processes. [5]
  • Compostable refers to the ability of a material to biodegrade under specific, controlled environmental conditions; generally referring to two composting environments:
    • Industrial Composting refers to composting that occurs in industrial facilities. Typically in greater volumes, with greater environmental control than domestic composting (i.e. longer time frames, higher temperatures, more consistency in conditions).
    • Domestic Composting refers to composting that occurs at a private household (i.e. backyard composting), typically in smaller volumes, with less environmental control than industrial composting (shorter time frames, lower temperatures, less consistency in conditions). [5]

So the terms biodegradable and compostable relate to the same attribute of a material or substance. The key points to be aware of on biodegradable and compostable products are the external conditions and the time frame in which biodegradation occurs. Under composting settings- warm, consistent temperatures, high humidity, the right “critters” – be it industrial or domestic, a compostable material will break down, by most standards, in about a year. However, under “natural” conditions- the side of the road or in a landfill – the same compostable material could take decades or longer to biodegrade. In fact, most alternative packaging materials will only biodegrade in a reasonable time frame under composting settings; otherwise, they can persist in the environment for as long as conventional plastics.

Now to bring in a few more terms-

  • Degradable is a blanket term that refers to breaking down material by any means, including temperature, U.V., physical abrasion, etc.

This is important to understand because degradation can have both positive and negative effects. For example, suppose degradation refers to the physical breakup of material into smaller and smaller pieces of that same material. In that case, you can end up with particles, like microplastics- known to be detrimental to wildlife- in the environment. Or suppose degradation refers to the chemical breakdown of a material. In cases where the material is partially made up of toxic chemicals or additives, this results in the leaching of toxic chemicals into the environment. So it is crucial to remember degradation can refer to a variety of actions and effects. A material that exemplifies this distinction and another term that has started to pop up frequently in packaging is oxo-degradable plastics.

  • Oxo-degradable is a term used to define plastics that have an additive that encourages degradation by oxidation- simply put, by the presence of oxygen.

Note the use of degradation here. This term can be misleading because, while it sounds like a positive attribute of a material, the resulting degradation is not defined. These materials weaken over time more quickly than conventional plastics in the presence of oxygen but often result only in a physical breakdown. Meaning the material breaks into smaller and smaller pieces that can persist in the environment [5].

Bioplastics

With those definitions in mind, we can move onto some terms in use around alternative packaging materials. The umbrella term used to cover all these conventional plastic alternatives is bioplastics.

  • Bioplastic is a term used for materials that are made, in some part, from organic materials and/or materials that are biodegradable [1].

It may be surprising, but not all bioplastics are biodegradable. Generally, bioplastics can be broken down into two categories: biobased and biodegradable [1].

  • Biobased bioplastics refer to materials made in part of organic matter (biomass) but are not necessarily biodegradable [1].

Many materials in this category are referred to as drop-in solutions.

  • Drop-in solutions are materials that have the same chemical structure as conventional plastics but are made from organic sources (i.e. BIO-PET, BIO-PE, etc.) [3].

Biobased bioplastics, specifically drop-in solutions, make up the most significant part of bioplastic production. They are favourable for production because their chemical structure is the same as their conventional plastic counterparts. This means, in some cases, the same infrastructure used to make the conventional plastic can be repurposed to make these drop-in solutions. Though they are not suitable for composting, they can generally be recycled, so, once again, existing infrastructure can be used to deal with them in the waste stream [4]. These points mean they are viewed more favourably than their conventional plastic counterparts.

Now for the biodegradable category of bioplastics:

  • Biodegradable bioplastics refer to materials that are (you guessed it) biodegradable [1].

If the goal is to reduce harmful and finite resource use, there are drawbacks to this category. Biodegradable bioplastics are defined only as being biodegradable, not as being made from organic material. This means this category includes synthetic-based materials- materials derived from petrochemicals- in addition to the biomass-based materials one would assume make up this category. In fact, the bioplastic produced most significantly in this category- PCL- is derived from petrochemicals, just like conventional plastics [2][5].

There are biobased biodegradable bioplastics that are becoming more and more prevalent, such as PLA. But as we now know, even though these materials may be labelled “biodegradable,” we must compost them in an industrial facility. So our next question to investigate is, do we have the infrastructure to deal with them in the waste stream?

Sustainable Materials

Understanding these terms gives a foundation of knowledge on the materials used in sustainable packaging. As demands for sustainable practices in the packaging industry grow, so does the realm of green packaging- bringing innovation and promising new technologies. Ensuring the adoption of the most impactful solutions will depend on our understanding of these new technologies. As a member of the packaging community, Plexpack is dedicated to educating ourselves- on these new technologies and on how they will better our industry. We are committed to sharing this educational process and hope it will aid our customers and colleagues as we aim for a greener future.


Sources:

[1] European Bioplastics. (2018a). What are bioplastics? Material types, terminology, and labels – an introduction. Retrieved from https://docs.european-bioplastics.org/publications/fs/ EuBP_FS_What_are_bioplastics.pdf  

[2] European Bioplastics. (2018b). Bioplastics market data 2018. Retrieved from https://www.european-bioplastics.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Report_Bioplastics-Market-Data_2018.pdf  

[3] Institute for Bioplastics and Biocomposites. (2018). Biopolymers: facts and statistics. Retrieved from https://www.ifbb-hannover.de/en/facts-and-statistics.html  

[4] RoadToBio. (2017). Bio-based, drop-in, smart drop-in, and dedicated chemicals. Retrieved from https://renewable-carbon.eu/publications/product/bio-based-drop-in-smart-drop-in-and-dedicated-chemicals-%E2%88%92-full-version/

[5] United Nations Environment Programme. (2017). Exploring the potential for adopting alternative materials to reduce marine plastic litter. Retrieved from https://wedocs.unep.org/handle/20.500.11822/25485  


Responses (1)

  1. VERY well written piece Natalie!
    Thanks for spelling it out in this way. There is so much confusion among consumers and packaging industry professionals alike that we need more and more of this type of clarity to help people get a grasp of what’s being talked about here. It is confusing and can be complicated.
    Without this understanding industry people become reticent when creating their sustainable goals and simply go for the easiest solution which often means some form of greenwashing ensues.
    Would love to hear more from you on this subject. Keep it up.

    Martin Downey on June 23, 2021 at 2:35 pm
    Reply link here

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