Can Plant-Based Plastics Dig Us Out of Waste Crisis?

Why compostable plastics are condemned to landfill and what can be done to solve the packaging conundrum.

How do you fix a consumer economy that’s waist-deep in disposable plastics?

With cargo boatloads of our plastic trash getting turned back from Asia, only 9% of plastics being recycled and single-use plastic bans now in 60 countries and counting, businesses big and small are scrambling for alternatives that don’t leave their customers saddled with guilt.

One option under the microscope: plastics that come from the earth and – the hope is – return to the earth.

Seafood shells, sawdust, cornstarch, algae, tree bark, chicken feathers – pretty much any natural substance you can think of is being converted to plastic.

Compostable plant-based plastics in particular have been officially pinned to the vision board of a new circular economy.

In August, Molson Coors became the latest of 125 corporations (including L’Oréal, Mars, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company and Unilever) to join the Ellen MacArthur Foundation pledge to phase out unnecessary plastic packaging and work toward “100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging by 2025.”

Behind the scenes, chemical giants, packaged good firms, university labs and start-ups are hustling to find workable plant-based options.

Even oil companies are getting in on the action: a joint venture led by global French oil major Total is lobbying to have its sugarcane-based PLA bioplastic replace conventional cups, plates and the like in airports, food courts and restaurants across India, as the country brings in a national single-use plastic ban in October.

Some analysts suggest that, with aggressive growth, bioplastics have the potential to replace up to 49% of conventional plastics by 2050, which Project Drawdown, founded by environmentalist Paul Hawken, estimates could save a whopping 4.3 gigatonnes of carbon (equivalent to taking 1 billion cars off the road for one full year) by 2050, particularly if we make those plastics out of waste.

So why are plant-based plastics facing pushback from critics and a barrage of bad press?

Unless some thoughtful solutions are cooked up before the coming wave of revamped packaged goods hits stores, bioplastics may be wasting their big break.

The promise

At this point in the game, plant-based bioplastics are still a drop in the bucket: just 1% of the 330 million tonnes of plastics churned out globally.

But that market is growing quickly.

A potential boom in bioplastics could be a boon for Canada, too, where the conventional plastics-manufacturing industry now rakes in $35 billion annually.

A third of that manufacturing is for packaging, which MSCI – a global provider of stock market indexes – warned in August could end up as stranded assets if the global trend of restrictions on single-use plastics continues.

Today in Canada, there are coffee lids being developed from shrimp shell waste in Vancouver, cling wrap from canola stalks in Alberta and Guelph, and water bottles from sawdust in Sarnia.

At one Toronto start-up, hungry bacteria are turning food-waste slop from green bins into plastic packaging.

And researchers in BC and Toronto are even working on capturing waste greenhouse gases and converting that to fuels and plastic.

It’s all quite innovative and exciting in that start-up kind of way.

These second-generation waste-based materials in development should avoid many of the shortcomings of first-generation bioplastics: the corn- and sugarcane-based plastics that currently dominate the market have been slammed for diverting arable land from food crops, using resource intensive industrial agriculture, clearing rain forests (which increases greenhouse gas emissions) and other environmental woes.

And the compostable plastic varieties among them should have an extra green edge. While recyclables are often shipped halfway around the planet and are increasingly rejected and shipped back home, you can’t haul rotting food long distances.

That means composting facilities are usually within 200 kilometres (and often under 50 km) of your kitchen green bin.

Except that for a host of practical reasons, the majority of those bioplastics are currently condemned to landfill (where even 40-year-old hot dogs have been found perfectly preserved).

What gives? It turns out solving the plastic crisis isn’t as clear as, well, a Ziploc bag.

What do you mean, “bioplastic”? Regulating plant-based plastics

For businesses looking for feel-better packaging options, bioplastics seem like a win-win: you’re replacing petroleum with plants and they’re supposed to be biodegradable. Right?

The thing is the term bioplastic is a loose catchall for a wide range of plastics made of biological materials.

They can be as little as 25% plant-based. And the lion’s share – 80% of bioplastic – isn’t designed to biodegrade at all.

In fact, most are designed to last – like the bioPET now being used by Hasbro in some of its toy packaging and Coca-Cola/Dasani in their PlantBottles.

Once manufactured, they’re molecularly identical to regular PET pop-bottle plastic – it’s just that the ethanol they’re made with is partly derived from sugarcane.

And they’re designed to be recycled, not green binned – or tossed in an ocean for that matter.

After three years in seawater or soil, even a bioplastic bag labelled “biodegradable” was found very much intact and able to hold groceries, in a recent study by the University of Plymouth in England.

A thin bag labelled “compostable” did dissolve after three months in seawater, but it’s a crapshoot, since certified compostable plastics are designed to break down in the 55 to 60 C heat of industrial composting facilities.

New “marine biodegradable” labels for bioplastics are coming out of Europe, though certified plastics could take anywhere from 28 days to a year to fully break down in the ocean.

Confusion about what bioplastics are and do led California and now Washington State to ban the sale of plastic products that call themselves “biodegradable” or “compostable” – unless they’ve been certified compostable to a specific standard.

Last summer, Amazon coughed up $1.5 million in settlements after two dozen California district attorneys went after the retailing giant for carrying pseudo-compostables.

The big hitch is that – except for some green bin liners in certain cities – even products that are certified to the highest compostability standards aren’t accepted by the vast majority of curbside green bin programs in Canada.

That’s partly because people dump all kinds of plastics into their green bins, and neither green bin nor blue bin processing facilities can tell the difference between a genuinely compostable coffee cup from a regular plastic one, let alone a quasi-biodegradable one that doesn’t really break down.

As Emily Alfred, Toronto Environmental Alliance’s waste campaigner, puts it, “It basically ends up being an expensive trip to the landfill.”

In September, a British parliamentary committee warned that without proper industrial composting infrastructure in place to make sure this type of packaging breaks down correctly, compostable bioplastics were confusing consumers, possibly encouraging littering and contributing to ocean plastic in the British Isles.

“Fundamentally, substitution [with bioplastics] is not the answer,” concluded the committee’s chair, MP Neil Parish.

This after Oregon’s composting facilities penned an open letter to America’s largest compostables certifier, the Biodegradable Products Institute, in April explaining that they no longer accept compostable packaging, partly because “not all ‘certified’ compostable items will actually compost as fully or quickly as we need them to.”

Add to that recent headline-grabbing studies finding that fibre-based compostable packaging at big food chains like Chipotle was grease-proofed with persistent perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) and you get a taste of the controversy dogging compostable plastics.

Banning PFAS from food packaging, as Denmark did this September, would help. So would having national rules and regulations around compostable packaging, which is exactly what the Compost Council of Canada, Recycle BC and others have been lobbying the feds to take on.

If compostable plastics are to be rescued from the “good ideas gone wrong” trash heap, the right regulation will be key.

Good things grow in Ontario?

Back in June, Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MOECP) set up a Compostable Products Technical Working Group to set clear rules for compostable packaging and “ensure these materials are accepted by existing and emerging green bin programs across the province.”

The group has been holding multi-stakeholder consultations all summer trying to hammer out solutions.

By all accounts, finding common ground between composters and packagers has been tricky.

“Half the room was from the composting industry, half the room was from the packaging sector, and the two of us don’t see eye to eye on this at all,” says Paul Taylor of Bio-En Power, which runs one of the largest organic waste processing facilities in Canada. “Some of the packaging guys don’t understand why we’re so negative and unwilling to get on board.”

Taylor warns that compostable plastics are going to face more systemic hurdles since Canada’s composting sector has been steadily moving away from old-school open-air aerobic composting sites – the kind that were capable of processing genuinely compostable plastics. Instead, more and more regions, like Durham and Peel, are shifting to less odorous (read: less complaint-prone) airless anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities.

At this point, AD plants, like the city of Toronto’s, can’t handle compostable plastics, and all the weird stuff people put in green bins – plastics, glass, ceramics, trailer hitches – get fished out on the first day and sent to the dump.

So now what?

Put a stripe on it

First things first: if Ontario and Canada opt to regulate compostable plastics, advocates suggest they follow in Washington State’s footsteps.

While outlawing non-certified compostables, it also forced manufacturers to stop making certified compostable packaging that looked like regular plastic.

It must now be easily identifiable, through labels and high-visibility markings like green stripes. Some in Europe are experimenting with adding digital watermarks to items like compostable yogurt cups and such so that optical sensors can easily ID them as compostable, just as they do other plastics.

Putting clearly identified compostable packaging in blue bins (instead of green bins) where it could be sifted, sorted and sent to industry-funded composting facilities might be one answer for cities like Toronto.

Making brands pay for composting compostables

Getting industry to fork out the costs of composting its waste is something the Compost Council of Canada’s Susan Antler has been advocating for years.

“We’ve watched blue box funding from industry climb every year, and recyclables make up just 15 to 20% of the waste stream.

Meanwhile organics [green-bin-type waste] makes up 40 to 50% of the waste stream and we’ve never had any industry funding.” Adds Antler, “There’s a huge opportunity to work together.”

Alan Blake of the Packaging Consortium (PAC) is on board with making producers of compostable packaging pay into extended producer responsibility (EPR) models like BC’s and soon Ontario’s, where packaging producers are responsible for paying the full costs of managing their packaging at the end of its life.

Says Blake, “If Canada is serious about a zero-plastic-waste economy, boy, we’ve got to step up pretty quickly to incentivize the industry to deal with [bioplastics] rather than send it to landfill or burn it.”

Reps from Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment told Corporate Knights that the province is looking at how EPR should be applied to “all paper and packaging in Ontario, including compostable products and packaging.”

Not that simply having EPR will solve all of bioplastic’s woes. In BC, compostable packaging like clear corn-based PLA cups found in blue bins, along with other non-recyclable plastics, are typically turned into engineered fuel to be used as a replacement for coal in industrial processes.

If found in Vancouver’s green bins, compostables are currently sent to landfill. It’s not quite a circular economy dream come true.

But Recycle BC’s David Lefebvre says they’re working on it. “[We’re] trying to solve the riddle everyone is trying to solve.”

Propping up the single-use economy?

Even if that composting riddle is solved, Sarah King, Greenpeace Canada’s plastic campaigner, is concerned that bio-based packaging is a distraction.

Like the British MPs, she wants to see a fundamental shift away from single-use packaging altogether and worries that switching to disposable bioplastics will only delay the transition to a genuinely circular economy that has reuse/refill models at its centre.

But, King adds, “if some compostable alternatives were going to work, they would need to be derived from existing [bio]waste and be made from post-consumer content.”

Setting high recycled-content targets (for both bioplastics and regular plastics) will be essential.

As Marcelo Lu, CEO of chemical company BASF Canada (which makes certified compostable green bin liners and now produce bags), tells Corporate Knights, “There will be no need for new plastic in the future.”

Particularly if national standards also restrict unnecessary and hard-to-recycle packaging and set firm targets for reuse models – like the reusable $4-deposit takeout containers just introduced at Farm’r Eatery and Catering on Toronto’s Esplanade or the $5-deposit rentable cups in 200 Montreal cafes.

The future for bioplastics

New research tells us the Plastic Age is already etching itself into the earth’s fossil record. While it’s still early days, bioplastics that truly return to the earth without doing more harm may have a role in rectifying that.

For the time being, businesses looking to serve up compostable plant-based plastic will have to bypass residential green bins altogether.

Some sporting arenas, festivals, concerts and facilities like the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (which started diverting 500,000 food and drink containers to composters in May) have made certified compostable servingware work since they can control what products are used on the premises and they’ve contracted willing composting facilities to process that waste directly.

“Compostable plastics may not be ready for prime time yet,” says Michael Okoroafor, one of the minds behind Coke’s PlantBottle and VP of global sustainability at McCormick Foods, which has signed on to the global pledge to go 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

But he adds, “Here’s the good news: We now have a rallying cry that is galvanizing industry to drive forward with the circular economy.”


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Can plant-based plastics dig us out of waste crisis?

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