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Role of Bioplastics in Sustainable Packaging

The packaging industry gathered in Seattle in early April for SPC Impact 2019, an event held by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (Charlottesville, VA) to review the latest trends and innovations in reducing the environmental impacts of packaged goods.

I had the privilege of participating in a panel exploring the impact of bioplastics on the industry today and how it may evolve in the future. Here are three key takeaways that were covered during the session.

The difference between bio-based and biodegradable

As new technologies and processes are introduced to the packaging industry, it is critical that every link in the supply chain understands the definition of key terms and buzzwords that are driving the conversation.

Dr. Ramani Narayan, a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University (Ann Arbor, MI), provided attendees with a clear distinction between two concepts that can be misunderstood when discussing bioplastics: bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics.

The phrase “bio-based” refers specifically to the beginning of the lifecycle of a material. A bio-based plastic is created primarily from plant material.

On the other hand, the phrase “biodegradable” refers to the end of the lifecycle of a material. A biodegradable plastic will organically breakdown in certain environments.

It is essential that the packaging industry understand that a bio-based plastic may not necessarily be biodegradable, while a biodegradable plastic may not necessarily be bio-based.

The most effective approach to reducing the environmental impacts of the packaging industry should include a focus on both bio-based and biodegradable plastics.

An emphasis on creating bio-based plastics will help reduce the carbon footprint of package manufacturing, while ensuring biodegradability will minimize a material’s environmental impact upon disposal.

Circularity in packaging

An emphasis on sustainability means looking beyond the final product and considering the actual process of creating bioplastics. Carolyn Klindt, Senior Packaging Engineer of Research & Innovation at Danone North America, elaborated on how her company accomplishes this in the creation of eco-friendly beverage packaging. In addition to using plant-based materials for its plastic bottles, the company adheres to a circular approach in creating the packaging.

A circular approach means that the materials the company produces are contained within a closed-loop system, which ultimately ensures that packaging can be safely reused, recycled or composted. This process helps ensure that products stay in the production lifecycle for as long as possible without becoming waste or pollution.

Sustainable packaging in action today

Panelists complemented the discussions around sustainable concepts with real-world examples of materials and processes that are driving eco-friendly packaging. Polyactic acid (PLA) is one of the most prevalent bio-based plastic materials produced globally, and brands are using it to reduce their carbon footprint and their packaging production costs.

Derek Atkinson, Senior Business Director at Total Corbion PLA (Gorinchem, The Netherlands), discussed how his company created the first PLA material made from Bonsucro-certified sugarcane. Christine Schaefer, Director of Marketing at Columbus,OH-based Plastic Suppliers, Inc., explained how PSI’s EarthFirst PLA serves as a substitution for fossil-fuel based films.

Another material available to the packaging industry today is polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), which is manufactured by our team at Danimer Scientific (Bainbridge, GA). Our Nodax PHA will soon be used by Nestlé to create a fully biodegradable bottle for the brand’s global bottled water business (see Nestlé taps Danimer Scientific PHA for biodegradable water bottle development, published March 2019).

Collaboration leads to success

The most important takeaway from the panel was driven home by Chris Mitchell, Vice President of the Americas at Futamura (Nagoya, Japan), when he emphasized that collaboration is critical to achieving sustainability in the packaging industry.

Brand owners must work closely with material manufacturers and development partners to identify the appropriate bioplastics for specific applications, while also dedicating their operations to supporting sustainability at every step of the manufacturing cycle.

We, the packaging industry as a whole, must also collaborate with consumers, government agencies and community leaders to maintain effective recycling and waste management systems to reduce the impact of packaged goods at the end of their lifecycle.

The state of sustainable packaging, both in terms of the materials themselves and the processes used to create them, will surely continue to evolve at a rapid pace in the year ahead. Collaboration will be critical to ensuring the industry can stay on top of the latest advancements.

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This article was published on plasticstoday.com and written by Phil Van Trump serves (Chief Technology Officer at Danimer Scientific (Bainbridge, GA).