Designing Solutions Report: Findings from the second UK SIMBIO Social Innovation Lab

This report presents the main findings from the second Social Innovation Lab ‘Designing Solutions’,
which was held online on the 10th of June 2021 to expand on possible ‘solutions’ that challenge
the norms in bioplastics packaging, identify promising solutions for rapid prototyping, and explore
future pathways for improving the sustainable uptake of bioplastics packaging.

Stakeholders from the bioplastics industry, retail sector, consumer associations, government
agencies, NGOs and international and UK academics identified three areas of solutions that currently
have the highest potential to drive change to a sustainable packaging system. Participants identified:
communication with consumers, certification standards & guidelines, and end of life as the most
promising solutions applicable to a biobased biodegradable plastics packaging system (also referred
to as ‘compostable plastics’ in this report). These solutions were seen as complementary and under
a dynamic process, which, combined with long-term measures, such as education and policy/
regulatory measures, may help facilitate the sustainable transition of packaging to compostable
plastics packaging.

The second lab also proposed that compostable plastics packaging uptake could not be seen
in isolation from the packaging system. They also emphasised the improvement needed to clarify
the information on all packaging products and the advanced management practices required for
the disposal and collection of all recycled materials by the different actors (e.g. workplaces, local
councils). Besides, they called attention to the need to find ways to provide alternative solutions
for packaging used on a regular basis in homes (e.g. bathroom products in bottles). This type of
packaging may be currently highly recycled; however, due to their frequency of use, these packaging
forms can also be reused, refilled, or further re-invented.

The envisioned sustainable pathway by 2030 requires a more fine-grained development of innovations
that will be discussed in the third social innovation lab, i.e. ‘rapid prototyping of potential solutions’.
This pathway is expected to be supported by innovations (e.g. product innovation, process innovation,
service innovation, etc.) and policy changes.

The 2nd UK SIMBIO Social Innovation lab – Designing Solutions

by Macarena Beltran, Jordon Lazell, Benny Tjahjono, David Bek and Anna Bogush

The second of three UK Social Innovation labs focusing on the sustainability of bioplastic packaging was held on the 10th of June 2021. Participants representing a wide range of stakeholders, including producers, retail, consumers, NGOs, and important organisations that are part of the bioplastic packaging supply chain, joined to hear from expert speakers and participate in a workshop exercise.

The event kicked off with a reminder of the mission of the SIMBIO project from Professor Benny Tjahjono from Coventry University. The SIMBIO project seeks to address the bioplastic packaging sector’s economic, social and environmental challenges through social innovation methods.  This lab focused on agreeing and expanding on potential solutions. This was informed by the findings of the first lab, which provided a number of recommendations for sustainable pathways moving forward. https://www.simbioresearch.com/seeing-the-system-report-uk-report/. System Thinking concepts to guide the selection of impactful solutions were also introduced by Dr Macarena Beltran from Coventry University.

Following this introduction, the event featured a presentation from Paul Thompson. Paul leads the Compostable Material Certificate Scheme at REAL (Renewable Energy Assurance Limited) as well as feeding into wider organics policy development. Paul gave a detailed overview of the certification scheme and its importance in overcoming the contamination issues that conventional plastic cause in compost generation from waste materials. Paul highlighted the need for certification to be combined with clear messaging for end-users to ensure proper disposal.

The second speaker, Rob Whitehouse, is the Waste Reduction Project Coordinator for Garden Organic. He coordinates council-funded waste reduction projects to reduce household food waste and supports the master composter programme. Rob’s presentation focused on the consumer views and his organisation’s experiments with composting bio-plastic materials, explaining the barriers against further bioplastic use. Rob highlighted some of the challenges that households and local authorities are facing in composting bioplastics materials and the potential of long term legislative and labelling solutions such as banning plastic bags.

Paul Thompson from (REAL) outlines the requirements of the compostable material certification scheme
Rob explains the role that legislation could play to improve material collection

The event then featured a workshop exercise whereby participants first ranked and then prioritised six solutions. These were ranked with the imperative of communication with consumers coming out on top, followed by the need for more work in the area of certification standards & guidelines and finally, the need to address the end of life management of compostable packaging products. Participants were also asked to select the most “infuriating” packaging product that is a good candidate for compostable plastics. Very interesting views of participants were collected about the replacement/development of different daily used packaging. Breakout sessions delivered ample discussion on the complexities of these priority areas with participants also considering what stage of success these solutions might reach in 10 years’ time.

The top three solutions voted for by participants included communication, certification standards & guidelines and end of life solutions

Upcoming event – 2nd UK Social Innovation Lab Event: Designing the system

Please register here: https://www.eventsforce.net/cugroup/296/home

We would like to invite you to join us on June 10th 2021, at the Second Bioplastics Social Innovation Lab – “Designing the System”. As an input for the second lab, we are happy to share the “Seeing the System” report  (first lab) that proposes recommendations based on the participant insights and the BBIA report that explain the biodegradable and compostable polymer materials briefly.

At the event, we will evaluate current recommendations from the first social innovation lab to unblock the bioplastic packaging supply chain. We also want to:

  • expand on possible “solutions” that challenge the norms in bioplastic packaging
  • identify promising solutions for rapid prototyping
  • explore future pathways for improving the sustainable uptake of bioplastic packaging

Follow-up Innovation Labs – prototyping solutions – will be organised in August-September 2021.

We are delighted to announce that this event will include keynote addresses from Paul Thompson (REAL – Renewable Energy Assurance Limited) and Rob Whitehouse (Garden Organic) and it will be facilitated by members of Coventry University and Dr Dee Hennessy from Creative Exchange.

Outline

9:30                Welcome and Starting Points

Update:

Professor Benny Tjahjono, Professor of Supply Chain Management at Centre for Business in Society, Coventry University.

Perspectives

Paul Thompson. Owner and Stakeholder Engagement of Compostable Materials. Renewable Energy Assurance Limited – REAL

Rob Whitehouse. Waste reduction Projects Coordinator. Garden  Organic.

Exploring Possibilities

Embracing Consumer Perspectives

Task Group Focus

Insights and Ways Forward

Next Steps

11:30               Close

An explanation of Biodegradable and Compostable Polymer Materials from the BBIA

A new report document from the BBIA (the Bio-Based and Biodegradable Industries Asociation) provides an explanation of Biodegradable and Compostable Polymer Materials.

The report gives further information on the process of biodegradation and it relevance to polymer materials. Such knowledge is critical in the bioplastics sector with two key characteristics explained as being important in determining whether and when the biodegradability of a bioplastic is useful:

  1. To be of practical value the rate of biodegradation has to be appropriate to the timescale of the end use/application involved.
  2. The environment in which the bioplastic finds itself at the end of life. Sometimes bioplastics will break down in certain conditions but not in others (e.g., a material might biodegrade in compost or soil, but not in a marine environment). A few biopolymers will biodegrade under a wider range of environments, for example polyhydroxy alkanoates (PHAs), but these are not a panacea – property and processing characteristics can still restrict potential end uses.

The report also gives further details on the process of composting, annaerobic digestion and soil degradation with reference to the biodegradability of polymer materials. The report also highlights the challenges of achieving biodegradation of biopolymer materials in freshwater and marine environments. The lack of biodegradability of ‘oxo-degradation’ materials is also explained.

Overall the report clarifies many points around the use of biobased materials. The key summary points are as follows:

  • Biodegradability as a property of a material should always be qualified with reference to the particular environment(s), end uses and relevant timescales.
  • Standards and/or protocols are largely in place for aerobic composting and anaerobic digestion, as well as soil, freshwater and marine biodegradation. These define appropriate testing environments, timescales and criteria for the useful deployment of biodegradable materials.
  • There is a need to simplify the messaging on biodegradability and compostability via a clearer labelling system – an initiative that is already underway in the UK.
  • Bioplastics are, for now, niche products, best suited to a range of specific applications where their environmental credentials offer real benefits over fossil-fuel alternatives.

More information about the BBIA can be found here: https://bbia.org.uk/

Seeing the system Report: Findings from the first UK SIMBIO Social Innovation Lab

The report details the findings from the first UK innovation lab event. The aim of this workshop was to facilitate dialogue between stakeholders to obtain a consensus about what the current packaging supply chain looks like for bio-based biodegradable products as well as identify barriers and opportunities, and discuss future possibilities.

The report first introduces the SIMBIO project and the Social Innovation Lab method. Following this an outline of the workshop is given including a summary of the activities. The findings from each of the group activities are then presented. This includes the activities in the consumption, production and waste management workshop breakout groups. The reports presents a diagram of the bioplastic packaging supply chain and three further diagrams that further detail the actors and connections in each of these areas of the supply chain.

Key themes emerging from the workshop are then given. These represent important discussion points raised by the participants. The 5 emerging themes were:

  1. Standardistions, labelling and its connection to competition and innovation
  2. Bioplastic material limitation and potential
  3. Cost and scale of production
  4. Marketing, consumer knowledge and bioplastic waste management behaviours
  5. Infrastructure required

The report comes to a close by making a series of recommendations to better connect the supply chain

Reference: Tjahjono, B., Lazell, J., Beltran, M., Bek, D., & Bogush, A. (2021). Seeing the system: Findings
from the first SIMBIO workshop, 4th of March 2021. In. Coventry: Coventry University,
Centre for Business in Society (CBiS).


Tackling the problem of plastics in the pandemic era: Update on the SIMBIO (Social Innovation Management for BIOPlastics) project

As a multi-functionary, low cost, ubiquitous material, plastic has been adopted as the preferred option for a wide range of applications. Recently plastic has become vital in protecting people from the COVID-19 virus. The demand for PPE (personal protective equipment) has skyrocketed in becoming an essential everyday item for key workers and front line services, as well as in the form of mandated mask wearing. Plastic packaging has been a crucial material in allowing aspects of everyday life to continue. The significant growth in online shopping has increased the usage of packaging. Consumers have given a renewed importance to the need for packaging as a protective layer over food products.

The mountain of plastic currently being produced however is one of the most pressing environmental concerns of the 21st century. Derived from fossil fuels, plastics are made of highly persistent particles, from a micrometer to a nanometer in size, which once entered into the environment are an uncontrollable threat to both human health and ecosystems. Humans are exposed to millions of plastic particles from the micro-plastics found babies bottles to our exposure through food and water to being found in the tissue that makes up our organs. Plastic are now ever-present in our environment. It is estimated that there is 14 million pieces of plastic less than 5mm wide on the ocean floor, 30 times more than on the surface with few environments untouched by plastic pollution. The delicate microorganisms that make up the cell structure of life have been shown to carry chemical contaminants resulting from plastics affecting soil balance, chemistry and its microbiology. Whilst the recycling agenda is gaining in momentum and the efforts to ban single use plastic products such as cutlery, cotton buds and drink straws are reducing plastic use, these efforts are just a drop in the ocean. The production of plastic still grossly outstrips recycling efforts.  With the utility of plastic products being further cemented over the course of the global corona virus pandemic, now more than ever a sustainable alternative is needed.

Bio-plastics (bio-degradable plastics) have been heralded as an ideal replacement to conventional plastics. Bio-plastics have the potential to break down within different environments under the right conditions. Bio-plastics can be produced from renewable raw materials and have already proved advantageous in certain applications such as for horticultural products, disposable packaging, catering and tableware, shopping bags, clothing and cosmetic products amongst other uses. Although yielding much promise presently their uptake is low and predicted to represent only 1% of 335 million tonnes of plastic produced annually.

Efforts to expand the application of bio-plastics are facing a number of challenges. There is currently a mismatch between the characteristics of bio-plastics and their ability to replicate the properties of conventional plastics in a cost-effective way. There is some confusion between bio-plastic applications that can breakdown in the natural environment and those that require further processes. There is a need to upgrade the existing biodegradability standards to meet the needs of the industry as well as manage end-of-life disposal is a sustainable way. Given the increasing pressure to find an alternative to plastics, there is a timely need for greater innovation in this sector.

The SIMBIO (Social Innovation Management for BIOPlastics) research project partners 4 universities to better understand how bio-based packaging innovation will impact the environment and diverse stakeholders across the supply chain. Funded through the UKRI Economic and Social Research Council, Coventry University is working alongside Simon Fraser University (Canada), the University of Lodz (Poland), the SGH Warsaw School and Economics (Poland) and the Federal University of Sao Carlos (Brazil) to develop social innovations that will address the environmental and social challenges of bio-plastic packaging throughout its entire supply chain from production to end-of-life management.

Despite the disruption of the pandemic, the project is progressing well. In each of the partner countries interviews are being held with key stakeholders in the bio-plastic industries to establish the application of current standards and perspectives on best uses. This is the first in a series of steps to an inclusive social innovation process. Colleagues in Canada are leading the way in producing a design brief document in collaboration with their stakeholders. This details the results of the first online workshop which communicated the findings of the key stakeholder interviews to discuss the role of bio-plastics in a circular economy, how they are envisaged as a replacement to plastics, their cost biodegradability, standardisation, environmental impact and the active regulatory framework. The online workshop utilised the Zoom software’s breakout feature, allocating groups of stakeholders to focused dialogue sessions. Here, supported bythe visual brainstorming platform Miro, stakeholders reflected on current challenges in the field and the pathways to collaborative working. A horns of dilemma debate then brought participants together to address contradictions, such as navigating the advantages and disadvantages of bio-plastics and how to make bio-plastics cost competitive than their fossil fuel-based equivalent.

This stakeholder interviews has revealed that the challenges of increasing bio-plastic applications in the packaging industry are complex and furthermore the solutions are not clearly defined. The social innovation process of encouraging dialogue between industry representatives is crucial in moving forward. The research team at Coventry University (Prof. Benny Tjahjono, David Bek, Macarena Beltran and Jordon Lazell) are currently developing the interview materials as well as the format of the social innovation process that will form the content of 3 workshops sessions carried out remotely over the next few months. The outcome of this will be meaningful engagement with a cross-section of stakeholders to facilitate technological development in this area, with the social innovation method holding strengths in solving complex, multi-faceted problems.