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Understanding Bioplastics

WE BELIEVE THE PATH FORWARD RELIES ON CONSUMING LESS WHERE POSSIBLE, USING BETTER PRODUCTS WHEN NECESSARY AND CONTINUOUSLY EDUCATING OURSELVES AND OUR CUSTOMERS. BIOPLASTICS ARE NOT THE SINGULAR SOLUTION BUT ARE PART OF A WEB OF CLOSED LOOP WASTE MANAGEMENT SOLUTIONS. 

 

"WHAT BENEFITS DO BIOPLASTICS ACTUALLY OFFER?"

  1. Bioplastics have the unique benefit of being certified compostable, biodegradable and made from sustainable plant-based options. Using plant-based materials instead of oil-based materials means that we can break the harmful chain of relying on resource depletion for economic growth.Divesting from fossil fuels is the only option we have for surviving on this planet. We cannot continue our over reliance on oil and hope to change government policy or industry priorities. 
  2. Micro-plastics from regular plastics are a growing and invasive threat to all our natural ecosystems.Certified compostable and biodegradable bioplastics do not release harmful particles into the environment during their decomposition. Certified bioplastics are consumed / broken down by microorganisms found in soil which contributes to natural cycles like composting. Regular oil derived plastics are not consumed by microorganisms but rather break off into smaller and smaller pieces. Micro-plastics have been found on land and sea causing illness, stifling soil biodiversity, and reducing reproduction in animals. Choosing better alternatives to regular plastics actively diverts more micro-plastics from entering the environment.
  3. Using plant-based plastics actively helps remove carbon from the atmosphere during the plants growing period. This process of plants storing carbon as well as the soil they grow in is known as a Carbon Sink. Some large-scale examples of carbon sinks are the ocean and forests. By choosing products that are grown from plants instead of processing oil we are actively supporting economic growth based on manufacturing processes that have lower green house gas emissions. Further, bioplastics can be treated in End-of-Life Cycles (EOL) in the production of renewable energy that emit far less or no greenhouse gases. Instead of regular plastics sitting in a landfill for hundreds of years we could have a closed loop system that turns bioplastics into energy. Currently land carbon sinks help return 26% of human caused emissions into the earth. Imagine how much more we could do if we prioritized creating more systems that can sequester carbon?
  4. Behavioural shifts are key in spurring political and economic change towards a greener economy and waste management. Choosing more eco-responsible options signals to the people around us, the companies we buy from and the customers we serve that we want products with better end-of-life options. Using certified bioplastics help people become more interested in waste management solutions that divert from entering landfills. The composting industry is growing at a rate that is projected to hit $9.2 billion by 2024 - a growth rate of 6.8% which is slightly higher than that of recycling. This tells us that composting currently is and will continue to play a pivotal roll in waste management. Behavioural shifts cannot take place if we keep doing the same things. We need to care about bioplastics to drive composting development.
  5. In the context of healthcare and cosmetic procedures like tattooing the option of recycling is currently unavailable due to barriers being contaminated with biohazards from bodily fluids. In this context bioplastics can make a huge difference in the amount of waste created in these industries.While it is commonly believed that commercial composting facilities cannot handle human biohazards this is a misconception. Composting is the ideal scenario for dealing with things like blood-borne pathogens and human waste. The reason not all composting facilities currently accept these contaminates is due to stigma. Composting manufacturers may have a harder time selling compost to businesses that might find compost made from these contaminates less appealing. Once the composting cycle is complete there are no harmful biohazards in the soil but there has been a significant lack of education around this topic. 

"HOW CAN BIOPLASTICS MAKE A DIFFERENCE IF WASTE MANAGEMENT FACILITIES DON'T ALWAYS PROCESS THEM?"

Commercial composting in North America began only in the early 1990's when a 'landfill crisis' was perceived for many reasons including lack of space, inefficient use of current landfills and landfill methane emissions. Due to the many limitations of landfilling, the expansion of composting and recycling is an inevitable evolution of our waste management system. Currently in Canada 21% of the waste stream heading to landfills is food scraps. Global methane emissions from food in landfills account for 8% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Due to this fact alone, great initiatives are being made to advance composting infrastructure.  

The predominant narrative regarding composting infrastructure in the USA & Canada is that it is largely absent and incapable of handling packaging. This narrative cited by consumers can often make them feel confused or mislead about the benefits of certified bioplastics. According to studies gathered from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, this narrative does not fully stand up to research being done on the developing composting infrastructure. According to a study from 2011, 63% of Canadian households have access to a composting program and in the USA a study from 2020 reported that 193 of the larges cities also have access to a composting program. 102 facilities take compostable packaging, including bioplastics from residential and commercial sources. Not only does composting exist in greater numbers than expected but a notable number of facilities and programs accept a wide range of compostables.

While these statistics reveal that the compost industry is growing, we also acknowledge that it needs to expand enormously and does not currently satisfy the demand. We need to petition, get involved locally and use products that support the growth of this industry to ensure that it keeps progressing on the right track. Talking openly about the current limitations of the composting infrastructure encourages us to learn what programs are available in our areas and to also invest in the expansion of them. Using certified bio-plastic products also helps to initiate people into composting behaviour by encouraging us to continuously engage with it.

Here are a few interactive maps from GreenBlue's website and the Findacomposter site. 

"IF SOME BIOPLASTICS ARE BEING SENT TO LANDFILLS IS THIS REALLY BETTER THAN USING REGULAR PLASTICS?" 

More than half of the emissions created by regular plastics come from the sourcing & production of the materials. Specifically for plastics like HDPE & LDPE it accounts for roughly 57-61% of the total emissions made. From a greenhouse gas emissions perspective regular plastics are doing the most damage before they are even a usable product. This is because regular plastics rely on greenhouse gas intensive - fossil based - resources such as diesel, residual oil, gasoline and liquified petroleum gas to convert crude oil. These regular plastics also have air pollutant emissions including volatile organic carbon, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitric and sulphuric oxide, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Switching to plant-based bioplastics has the potential to dramatically reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions and studies have shown that this is true because the production and sourcing of bio-based materials produces less emissions. Life cycle analysis show that bio-based plastics enable a significant C02 saving compared to regular plastics. Varies in significance can increase all the way up to carbon neutrality depending on the feed stock, product, and application of the material.

"Substituting the annual European demand for fossil-based polythene with bio-based PE would save more than 42 million tonnes of C02 from entering the atmosphere. That is equal to the C02 emissions of 10 million flights around the world per year."

- European Bioplastics organization 

Some have raised concerns that bioplastics that end up breaking down in landfills contribute to the problem of methane being released from waste sites. When we put the facts into context, we can see that this is not as alarming as it sounds. Currently bioplastics make up less than 1% of the global plastics production and of that an even smaller amount are breaking down in landfills. As mentioned earlier the single greatest source of methane coming from landfill sites is food waste which amounts to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions - a staggering fact when we also consider that flights globally account for only 5%. We do not advocate for compostable and biodegradable products ending up in a landfill and we are aware that this is currently the model for many areas in North America. We do advocate for using compostable and biodegradable products because we need to support the development of closed loop waste management systems like composting. The more we substitute regular plastics for bio-based choices and the more we educate our selves on composting infrastructure, the greater the visibility for better waste management will become. In short, the more we support the bioplastic industry the more we also support the expansion of the composting industry which actively diverts waste from landfills.

All too often people hear conflicting ideas about bioplastics and resign to feeling defeated and choosing not to change their consumption habits. What we need is to make our communities excited about the current set of tools we have at our disposal and talk openly about the nuances and challenges of the industry so we can continue to develop real solutions.  

 

 

 

SOURCES

This page was written using statistics and studies from: 

  • Understanding the Role of Compostable packaging in North America,The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (2020) 
  • The European Bioplastics Organization's website
  • CBC Radio, The Current; Matt Galloway Episode from Feb 3rd 2022