The rise of plant-based plastic packaging

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If sustainable plastic sounds like an oxymoron to you, you wouldn’t be the only one. But with the sleeping giant of public opinion beginning to awaken to the unsustainability of plastic around the world — roughly 40 percent of which is found in packaging — some innovators are starting to look for ways to avoid using the material.

Still, it's hard to imagine anything as useful as plastic packaging. It's cheap, incredibly versatile, can be produced in virtually any shape imaginable, safely protects food and in many cases can be substituted for other, costlier and heavier materials such as metal, glass or wood.

What should companies do? The obvious approach would be to simply move away from plastic packaging or switch to reusables. However, that's simply not practical for a large number of product types, at least not today.

That’s why we are seeing a great race to produce plastic packaging alternatives. But what exactly is sustainable alt-plastic? Is it recyclable, compostable, biodegradable, made from renewable materials? Better yet, could it be plastic made from captured carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases? All of these options exist today, and quite a few are already on the market.

But with the market for plastic alternatives still nascent and growing, questions remain: Are all of these approaches mutually exclusive? If so, which is better? Importantly, which of these can work at scale?

Bioplastics represent one approach that has gotten a lot of attention. They’re a type of plastic made from renewable biological sources, as opposed to traditional plastics, which are made from fossil fuels. The bio-bases can run the gamut from vegetable oils to corn starches to food waste.

One major benefit of bioplastics is that they can be composted, while maintaining the same versatility as traditional plastics. That level of convenience is crucial to the nature of packaging. RJ Bianculli, managing director of Syosset, New York-based Emerald Brand, a company that produces compostable, bio-based, single-use plastics made from tree-free sources (primarily agricultural residues from crops such as sugar cane and wheat), is hopeful. Citing the fact that only 9 percent of all plastic has been recycled, he told GreenBiz that, "we, big picture, believe, and are betting that, composting and compostable organic products will be the future of waste." Doing so, he says, would reduce the complexities of multi-bin recycling systems and expensive sorting facilities. Emerald and others successfully have demonstrated this model at a number of food service-type facilities.

Compostable plastics represent a good solution for food-oriented, single-use applications, such as utensils, straws, etc., particularly in areas with composting infrastructure. Compostable snack bags, in particular, have emerged as an attractive alternative to the non-recyclable, multi-layer, metallic-lined bags. These have hit — and overcome — a few bumps on the road to implementation (customers found the first batch to be too noisy). Currently, Pepsico is working with Danimer on the third-generation compostable PHA based-bag. This material also has been shown to break down into harmless constituents in marine waters within 90 days, and while that's not the ideal endgame, it is a good feature in case the bag does end up seaside.

Other­­ innovators aren’t ready to give up on recycling just yet. Sandeep Kulkarni, adjunct professor of forest biomaterials at NC State, draws a more diverse and perhaps more nuanced picture. He notes that bioplastics are broadly defined today as "either derived from biological sources or are biodegradable." The world today, short of Bianculli's vision, does not have compostable Coca-Cola bottles. That, says Kulkani, means many forms of packaging still need to be recycled. Many approaches are in this vein, involving improving waste management systems for already recyclable containers and packages.

So which is more circular? While compostable plastics could be the easiest to deal with from a disposal perspective, they are also less circular, in the sense that a continuous supply of new items must be produced, which requires resources. They could be considered circular in a larger sense, however, if, for example, they could be produced in a manner that was carbon negative.

One desired outcome is to develop plastics packaging products that can be both compostable and recyclable. A few early-stage inventions aim to be this "desired outcome." Kulkani is working with Closed Loop Partners in assisting PTT MCC Biochem, one of the 10 winners of the open innovation initiative Next-Gen Cup Challenge, in developing such a material for what he calls the New Gen BioPBS Coated Cup.

While this is technically possible with materials such as bio-based polymer PLA, these compostable and recyclable products must be handled separately at end-of-life, or they can contaminate recycling streams containing PET, the material that most soft drink bottles are made from today. There are new, near-infrared (NIR) scanners that can detect the presence of PLA materials in a recycling stream that will help as they find their way into recycling facilities, but it's still extra work (and money).

One other company that is a big player on the market is Sealed Air, which makes those air pouches we've all seen in Amazon packages that have replaced styrofoam peanuts. The company just announced a $39 million investment to upgrade their 1.4 million square foot factory in Simpsonville, South Carolina to begin to also produce plant-based packaging there. The planned upgrade is a partnership between Sealed Air and the Japanese company Kurarary to produce Kuraray's Plantic material, a blend of plant-based resin and post-consumer plastic. The packaging will be used for perishable foods such as poultry, beef and seafood in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Plantic materials simply will dissolve in water.

But as companies attempt to move to more sustainable approaches, they'll need to understand both what is achievable today and what is ultimately desirable. And while the field surely will simplify over time, don’t expect a one-size-fits-all silver bullet.

The amount of early- to mid-stage solutions points out the need to proceed carefully as all these concerns can be avoided with the right approach — it will all have a bearing on both tomorrow's business and environmental landscapes.