Bioplastics and circularity: Why can't we be friends?

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The future of plastics isn’t what it used to be.

The invention of plastics in the early 20th century promised to change the world. It did — and then some. The pliable, convenient material’s near-exponential growth has enabled modern life, but its lack of designed-in end-of-life considerations has created a global waste crisis.

At GreenBiz's circular economy conference, Circularity 19, in Minneapolis last week, Valerie Craig, deputy to the chief scientist and vice president of impact initiatives at National Geographic Society, said on the main stage: "Plastics have undeniably changed our lives — in a lot of ways for the better — but we have created a pollution crisis of almost an unfathomable scale."

However, flexible plastic still has a place in a circular economy that’s fighting climate change — to protect food from spoiling, or decomposing, a process that produces the potent greenhouse gas methane; to create lighter, smaller products that optimize space and reduce emissions while transporting them, Craig noted.

So how do we keep the advantages with of plastic without contributing to the world’s waste problem? 

Ending plastic pollution while transitioning to a circular economy means using the materials that are already in existence on the planet (on land and in the oceans) — which requires systems change. There’s no silver bullet solution, of course. So if we still need malleable, lightweight plastics, how do we avoid extracting petroleum to produce plastics that create products that end up in a landfill?

Many are calling for a new paradigm (one that’s actually quite old) — plastics that are sourced from plants, rather than petroleum, and that can be broken down again safely at the end of their lives.

What exactly are plant-based plastics, and why do they matter?

Technically speaking, plant-based plastics are blends of parts of a plant that are manufactured using the same technologies as conventional plastics to create similar products with equivalent mechanical properties. To get super technical, the plant parts range from polysaccharides (starch, such as corn and potatoes; cellulose, such as sugar cane and sugar beet; lignin, such as wood; and chitin, such as fungi) to proteins (wheat gluten, silk and wool) to lipids (plant oils and used cooking oils).

Plant-based plastics can become consumer packaging (trays, films, bottles), convenience food disposables (cutlery), bags (shopping, garden or home waste), personal-care disposals (diapers, cosmetics) and more. Bioplastic polymers also have been used in more durable applications such as in textiles, consumer goods, automotive parts and building and construction. (Such plastics actually were developed in the late 1800s, but when fossil fuel-sourced plastics were developed and commercialized at an incredibly cheap price point, the synthetic versions quickly took over.)

Bioplastic offers oft-cited advantages over the synthetic alternatives: reduced fossil fuel use, smaller carbon footprint and quicker decomposition rates. They also contain fewer toxins than traditional plastics.

Still, plant-sourced plastics must have final destinations, too. What happens at the end of their lives depends upon the exact type of material they’re made out of, and how that can be broken down to best keep those "molecules at play." And that "end" could range from a recycling plant to an industrial composting facility to a home compost kit to a clean landfill.

Buy-in on bioplastics

Bioplastics currently represent a share of about 1 percent of the entire plastics market — but that’s expected to grow significantly in the coming years due to consumer demand and companies’ growing sustainability efforts.

That also means that appropriate end-of-life options must be better developed, as well.

All plastics technically "degrade" — or break down into smaller particles over time. Some bioplastics can biodegrade — which means they can be broken down by microorganisms under the right conditions (without oxygen and with heat), within a certain amount of time, into water, carbon dioxide and compost. Others must be industrially composted — which means that in a compost facility, microorganisms break them down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at the same rate as other organic materials in the compost pile, leaving no toxic residue.

If this sounds confusing, that’s because currently, it is. Often, consumers don’t know the difference between biodegradable and compostable — which means they’re confused about where to put their biodegradable spoons or their compostable cups once they’re done with them. In addition, composting facilities vary by region, so sometimes compostable and biodegradable products end up in landfills regardless.

The organic recycling landscape was the subject of discussion during the Circularity 19 session "Compostable Materials and the Circular Economy." Because compostable and biodegradable materials — from plastics to other organic materials — are a significant portion of the waste stream, with a distinct value chain, recovering some of that value is critical to a circular economy.

Improving organic composting systems is one solution, as is increasing the commercialization of bioplastics and raising consumer awareness around their end-of-life characteristics. That means deploying capital investments for new infrastructure for composting. It also means standardizing labels on products so consumers know the options.

Plus: "Regulations are changing," warned panel participant Janice Tran, director of Generate Capital’s waste investment team, with responsibilities ranging from origination, acquisitions, asset management and market development. "It’s coming. The time is now for opportunity." Companies can take advantage of them by taking action.

Opportunity for business

Where there’s systems change, there’s an opportunity for businesses. Businesses can connect with bioplastics through their circularity strategies.

In order to get bioplastics to commercially scale successfully, companies need to adopt them for their potential applications in operations at greater rates (packaging, etc.)

Avoiding petroleum-based plastics is actually one of the biggest opportunities for businesses in embracing the circular economy, noted Suzanne Shelton, sustainability marketing expert with the Shelton Group, on stage at Circularity 19.

"One-third of Americans are actively trying to buy something packaged in something other than single-use plastics," Shelton noted. And the ones that are still buying them don’t have any other options, she said. "People are literally stuck — they can’t not buy it — and how do they feel?" Trapped, angry, defeated.

"There is a journey of goodness for you here. There is an ability to build brands and sell products." Switching away from single-use plastics is a way for businesses to be competitive and engage with a loyal sector of consumers.

There are also major opportunities for partnerships with smaller materials startups and projects, which face stark valleys of death. Big companies can uptake innovations: L’Oreal’s new Seed Phytonutrients brand uses water-resistant paper bottles, while Nestlé has invested in Danimer Scientific, a biotechnology manufacturer of biodegradable and compostable polymers.

In a just circular economy, flexible, bio-based plastics will be used and reused safely to the end of their lives. Innovative companies can work on that transition right now.