New Report: Bioplastics are a part of a growing plastics predicament

Image: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC Office

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a new report on the state of waste in British Columbia and a proposed agenda for zero waste by 2040. Tamara Shulman and Belinda Li, two of the researchers from the SIMBIO Canadian team, supported the development of this report. This report outlines the predicament with plastics that doesn’t just apply in British Columbia, but also across Canada and the world, including the rising proliferation of bioplastics. The report proposes several next steps to address the problems with plastics, which focuses mostly on banning single-use plastics, significantly reducing use of virgin plastics and the number of types of plastics in circulation, and supporting small businesses in the transition away from single-use items.

The eventual goal should be to substitute all plastics with non-toxic materials that can be reused for a long time before being recycled or composted.

A Zero Waste Agenda for BC

Understanding the challenges with bio-packaging circularity in Poland

From September 2020 till May 2021, the Polish SIMBIO team devoted the attention to the identification of key challenges for the usage of bio-packaging in the food sector and its circularity in the economy. The researchers identified the challenges throughout the entire bioplastic packaging lifecycle in close cooperation with various stakeholders. Two qualitative research methods were used. The first method was a systematic literature review on the subject of bio-packaging supply chains management, based on international scientific databases. The second research method involved a series of in-depth interviews with internal and external stakeholders in the food bio-packaging lifecycle. The main attention of the researchers was focused on the development of the compostable packaging market.

Bio-packaging lifecycle

Source: SIMBIO Polish team.

The literature analysis confirmed that there is a research gap in social sciences regarding management of the life cycle of compostable packaging, based on the principles of circular economy and the cooperation of various stakeholders in this field. The in-depth interviews conducted with stakeholders allowed to conclude that the compostable packaging market as a niche market is still at very early stage of its development in Poland. It was recognized, that the entities, pursuing the goals of their own activities in public and private sectors, face challenges, which are often barriers resulting directly from the lack of processes integration between links in the entire bio-packaging lifecycles. Entrepreneurs and institutional stakeholders are usually aware of and have in-depth knowledge of the circular economy principles. They understand the significance and know trends in the development of bio-packaging. At the same time, they perceive the conditions that are challenges for closing the bio-packaging lifecycle.

The most important determinants include social factors. On the one hand, the awareness and knowledge of consumers in the field of sustainable development are growing as a source of requirements and a market driving force for the companies’ activities. On the other hand, there is still a great need for a broad and in-depth education of end users according to the types of waste and the need for the selective collection. The second group of conditions are legal factors and norms shaping the principles of research, development, commercialization and labelling of bio-packaging as well as its circular lifecycle. Currently, stakeholders indicate numerous gaps in the integration of bio-packaging certification as well as in supply chain management in the line with the circular economy principles. The third group of conditions consists of economic factors, and the fourth – technological ones. The development of the compostable packaging requires research and development works on biopolymers, and then scaling the results of these studies to the possibilities of industrial production and furthermore, investments in production technologies. The importance of the economic and technological conditions as barriers is confirmed by the fact that there are no suppliers of granules for the production of compostable packaging in Poland, and producers of bio-packaging import bioplastic materials mainly from Italy and Germany. There is also a high need for investments in infrastructure for the development of waste management system, e.g. bio-bins, collection containers, selection lines or bio-composting plants.

The results of the so far conducted research allow to formulate the following conclusions:

Source: SIMBIO Polish team.

Understanding the challenges with bioplastics in Canada

In fall 2020, the Canadian SIMBIO team convened the “Seeing the System” workshop over a series of three online sessions. We brought together over 20 participants who have varying roles and experiences with bioplastic packaging to better understand the environmental and social impacts of bioplastics using a systems-thinking approach. Here are some highlights from this workshop.

What do bioplastics mean to us?

Participants were asked to describe bioplastics using two words without using “bioplastic”, “compostable”, and “packaging”. The words have been arranged into a word cloud showcasing the most commonly encountered words. It’s interesting that words like challenging, complicated, confusing, and complex came up, indicating the tension in the bioplastics space.

What are the challenges with bioplastics?

Through a systems mapping exercise, we identified the following challenges:

  • Inconsistent labelling across products and discrepancy between what labels indicate (e.g. compostability) and what’s achievable in real-life for end-of-life management
  • Sourcing ethical and sustainable materials for bioplastic production that do not compete with other uses
  • A volatile and fast-moving industry where the risk of “locking in” to a certain resin, material, manufacturing process, or product may be too costly for a business if the market shifts away from what they invested in
  • Conflicts between using bioplastics for single-use items versus moving away from single-use items
  • Confusion amongst users of bioplastics on what to do with them at the end-of-life and lack of processing options in many jurisdictions

What needs to change?

The concept of a “donut economy” was identified as a guiding framework to determine what opportunities are appropriate for bioplastics. In a “donut economy”, there is a need to support an ethical social foundation, biological boundaries, and environmental sustainability across the entire system.

Environmental doughnut infographic
Source: World Economic Forum, 2017

To achieve a “donut economy” for bioplastics, these were some changes that were identified in our workshop:

  • Accepted, clear, and consistent standards
  • Accessible, transparent and credible information throughout the product life cycle
  • Compatibility between bioplastic products and end-of-life processing options
  • Ethical and sustainable bioplastic material sources
  • Supports and certainty for industry and business

Based on what we learned from this first workshop, we held a second workshop in the winter of 2021 called “Designing Solutions” to explore solutions that may be possible to shift the system. We’ll discuss the highlights from the second workshop in our next blog post!

Written by Belinda Li, based on summaries by Nadia Springle, Belinda Li, and Tamara Shulman

SIMBIO on the National Observer

Belinda Li from our Canadian project team talks about some of the findings from Social Innovation Management for BIOPlastics (SIMBIO) in this news article published in the National Observer, which has since been syndicated to the Toronto Star, Welland Tribune, and Prince George Citizen. This article is a repost of the original.

Compostable plastic is booming in Canada — but it may still end up in landfills

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson | NewsFood Insider | November 27th 2020

Compostable plastic cups at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, N.Y. Photo by Brian Yurasits via Unsplash

Bio-based plastics, most of them compostable to some degree, are proliferating across Canada. Yet millions of compostable cups, containers and bags will probably still end up in landfills.

It’s a crisis driven, in part, by bad communication.

Bio-based plastics are not made equal. Some break down easily; others need months in an industrial composting machine before they disintegrate into organic compounds. And they’re classified through a labyrinthine system that leaves everyone — from manufacturers to waste managers to consumers — confused.

“Differentiating between the different definitions, that in itself is a project,” said Belinda Li, director of innovation at Simon Fraser University’s Food Systems Lab, which is leading a research project on biodegradable plastics.

In practice, that means most conscientious Canadians trying to dispose of their plastic waste appropriately have two choices: The recycling bin or the trash can.

Belinda Li, director of innovation at Simon Fraser University’s Food Systems Lab, says the mosaic of certification standards means most bio-based plastics don’t get composted. Photo provided by Belinda Li

Over 90 per cent of the world’s plastics are produced from fossil fuels, accounting for roughly six per cent of global oil consumption.

Less than one-tenth of this plastic is recycled, and the trend isn’t reversing: Researchers estimate that on the current trajectory, a fifth of the world’s oil will be used to make plastic by 2050, according to a forthcoming study by Li.

Bio-based plastics have emerged in recent years as an alternative against this backdrop — but what falls in that category is broad. According to research by Li’s team, the term is used to describe everything from plastics made from plants to plastics that can be broken down into their molecular parts by composting and plastics that are both plant-based and biodegradable.

That’s largely because, in Canada, the words used to describe bio-based plastics aren’t consistently regulated, Li explained. For instance, a coffee cup lid could be labelled as “biodegradable” or “compostable,” but what those words actually say about the whether the plastic can be broken down into organic matter is inconsistent.

“If you have something that’s certified organic (for example), it’s actually certified” according to standards set by the federal government, she explained. “With bio-plastics, none of that exists right now. You can label something as anything you want — compostable, biodegradable, plant-based.”

Researchers estimate that on the current trajectory, a fifth of the world’s oil will be used to make plastic by 2050. Bio-based plastics present an alternative — but the definition of compostable plastic is broad. 

While there are several third-party certifications available to bio-based plastics manufacturers, being certified is voluntary, she said. And each certification standard also has different requirements on how long it takes for plastics to disintegrate and the kinds of technology needed to actually break them down.

And often, those standards aren’t actually reflected in municipal waste management systems.

“The conditions that the tests have are really hard to replicate in the field,” she said.

For instance, plastic that meets the ASTM D6400 standard — one of the more common classifications for compostable plastics — assumes the plastic will spend at least 180 days in an industrial composter.

“(For) a lot of composting facilities, their process isn’t that long. They need to get their stuff through faster than that because they just don’t have the (space),” she said. “So there’s a mismatch between the types of tests being done to show compostability and on-the-ground compostability.”

As a result, many municipalities across the country — including those in Metro Vancouver — will remove bio-based plastics from the organic waste stream, even if they’re technically compostable.