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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/

Bioplastics in Brazil: a new technology! Understanding the challenges in waste management

In Brazil, according to the National Solid Waste Policy – PNRS (Law No. 12,305 / 2010), waste management must guarantee maximum reuse and recycling and minimization of waste – which do not have technical and economic viability for recycling. Management is initiated primarily by waste pickers’ cooperatives and occurs significantly through the contribution of steps that favor the reverse logistics proposed by PNRS 2010 in terms of: door-to-door collection, transport, sorting and pre-processing (Lima & Mancini 2017). These associations establish partnerships with municipal selective collection programs, however, a large portion of these workers also operate independently from the public authorities, informally (Magni & Günther 2014). Waste pickers are generally not paid for collection and sorting services and their income is obtained from the sale of collected and recyclable materials. The main materials that make up its lace are cardboard and plastic, respectively. (Cempre Magazine 2019).

The SIMBIO Brazil team conducted semi-structured interviews in some Cooperatives in the State of São Paulo. However, the cooperative members claim to still be unaware of the waste of bio-based plastics, in terms of differentiating them from conventional plastics. In addition, some biodegradable food packaging is destined for Cooperatives. As they do not have trade for sale as a recyclable product, consequently these packages end up in landfills. The administrators of a Cooperative in the State of São Paulo-SP, Brazil:

“We only know the plastic bag from supermarkets as a biodegradable product. We separate and recycle it together with bags made from conventional plastics.”

“Whether other bioplastic packaging arrived here, we are unaware. There is no market for most food packaging (…) these are discarded for waste and are sent to landfills.”

In addition, Brazil is still incipient in the practice of composting. According to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics – IBGE, there are approximately 80 composting plants across the country. However, most are deactivated due to the lack of policies for the collection, sorting and processing of the collected organic matter. Currently, according to IBGE, composting plants represent only 4% of the destination of the organic fraction of solid waste generated in Brazil.

Although waste pickers still do not recognize bioplastics, Brazil already has the green plastic known as I’m green, produced by a petrochemical company. I’m green polyethylene is a plastic produced from sugar cane, a renewable raw material, while traditional polyethylene uses raw materials from fossil sources, such as oil or natural gas. For this reason, the I’m green polyethylene captures and fixes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during its production, helping to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. In an interview with the Brazil team, petrochemical company’s commercial leader in sustainable solutions states:

Currently, the production capacity is 200 thousand tons of ethylene from renewable sources. The biopolymers that Braskem produces can be recycled just like conventional polymers, (…) they can only be differentiated by measuring the age of the carbon in the resin.”

Brazil still has a long way to go in terms of integrating waste pickers into the country’s selective collection, as well as adding information to these institutions on the advancement of new technologies for the production of bioplastic packaging, on what is biodegradable, recyclable or not. The SIMBIO Brazil team will make a significant contribution to the interaction between private companies, waste pickers’ cooperatives and the local government. Through the Social Innovation Lab method, we have been dialoguing with all these stakeholders in the search for improvements and a consensus on the current bio-based packaging supply chain, by identifying barriers and future opportunities.

References:

Brazil (2010) Law No. 12,305. Federal Official Gazette of Brazil, Brasília, DF, No. 147, Section 1, p. 3, August 03rd. Available at: https://www.planalto.gov.br/ccivil_03/_ato2007-2010/2010/lei/l12305.htm (accessed 22 December 2020).

Cempre Review (2019) Selective collection profile, p. 24. Available at: http://cempre.org.br/upload/CEMPRE-Review2019.pdf (accessed 21 December 2020).

Lima NSS and Mancini SD (2017) Integration of informal recycling sector in Brazil and the case of Sorocaba City. Waste Management & Research 35: 721-729. DOI: 10.1177/0734242X17708050.

Magni AAC and Günther VMR (2014) Cooperatives of waste pickers as an alternative to social exclusion and its relationship with the homeless population. Saúde e Sociedade 23: 99-109. DOI: 10.1590/S0104-12902014000100011.

National Movement of Waste Pickers (2021) National News. Available at: http://www.mncr.org.br/noticias (accessed 20 May 2021).

By Lais Roncalho Lima, May 24 2021.

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).


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.

Social Innovation Lab in Bioplastics Supply Chain

As part of the ESRC-funded SIMBIO project, the first of three #Social Innovation labs was held on 4th March 2021, involving 40 participants representing a wide range of stakeholders in the bioplastics packaging supply chain. In the spirit of the times, the event used online technologies including Zoom and the interactive collaboration tool Miro to engage participants from Brazil, Canada, Poland, Indonesia, and the UK.

Technological innovations in the form of #biobased biodegradable plastics offer hope for the future. Still, many challenges across the supply chain need to be tackled before they can successfully be rolled out.

SIMBIO (Social Innovation Management for BIOplastics) project is an ESRC-funded research project (grant no. ES/T015195/1) aiming to develop social interventions which can identify and address the economic, social and political challenges of implementing packaging solutions based on biobased biodegradable plastics.

The Social Innovation lab is a method commonly used for solving complex social problems. The lab provides an avenue for multi-stakeholder groups to address a complex problem through sharing of participant’s differing perspectives. It takes a whole systems approach and uses data-oriented evidence base for testing hypotheses, rigorous tracking and analysis.

The event also featured a presentation from David Newman, Director of Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA). In his talk, David highlighted that –

“understanding the role of innovative materials and how society reacts to the transition into more sustainable practices is a crucial question. As we move towards net-zero emissions, we have to think across systems and how material applications can help achieve those ambitious goals. The SIMBIO project is an aid to that process”.

SIMBIO will ensure a constructive dialogue between different stakeholders within bioplastic packaging supply chains; involving production, consumption and waste management. This process will facilitate the development of a pathway towards greater uptake of biobased and biodegradable options, and at the same time, the achievement of sustainability goals.

Emily Nichols, technical manager for the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA), whose work is on organics and natural capital topics, said:

“In the right applications, compostable bioplastic packaging has a niche but important role to play in the more efficient collection and organic recycling of food wastes into digestates, biogas and composts. I welcome their consideration as part of the social interventions in this SIMBIO project will develop to support appropriate production, consumption and end-of-life management of the producible range of bioplastics”

Through the Social Innovation Labs, we are able to gain participant’s perspectives as to the realities of the current bioplastics packaging supply chain. We are also able to identify the structure of the bioplastic supply chain and the governance system that drives it. We want to collectively identify barriers, opportunities and develop a pathway towards greater uptake of biobased biodegradable materials in the future.

The output from this event will feed into the other two Social Innovation Labs scheduled for May and August, to design the action plans before looking in more detail at the subsequent event as to how the solutions can be materialised.

The Coventry University team

The SIMBIO research team consists of Prof Benny Tjahjono, Dr Macarena Beltran, Dr Jordon Lazell, Dr David Bek from the Sustainable Production and Consumption cluster of the Centre for Business in Society and Dr Anna Bogush from the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University. The event was assisted by PGRs: Liliani, Danu, Niken and Tanja.

#bioplastic #sustainability #biobased #social innovation labs #simbio #plastic

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

Waste management and the COVID-19 in Brazil

While Brazil had been enacting important laws to ban plastics, which could leverage the market for bioplastics, the 2020 scenario created new habits that reinvigorated the plastic industry worldwide (Prata et al., 2020).

The advent of the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus (Covid-19), announced by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March 2020, has been causing major global impacts. Whereas the number of known infections in Europe decreased, in May 2020 Latin America became an epicenter of the pandemic, driven mainly by the increasing number of cases in Brazil. Nine months after its first known case, Brazil had at least 7.5 million cases – more than the whole of Europe – and more than 190 thousand deaths (World Health Organization, 2020).

Despite the closure of factories and commerce, at the beginning of the pandemic, resulted in the reduction of pollutant emissions into the atmosphere, single-use plastics were once again essential in the individuals’ daily lives, which increased the complexities of plastic waste management. In Brazil, according to data from the Association of Public Cleaning and Special Waste Companies (ABRELPE, Brazil), there was a significant increase in the amount of solid household waste generated (approximately 25%) and a considerable growth in the generation of hospital waste in health care units (10 to 20 times) in 2020 (Abrelpe, 2020).

Amid the risk of transmission of the virus, the population changed its patterns of behavior and consumption (Kalina et al., 2020). The excessive demand for gloves and individual protection masks, as well as plastic packaging for food, hand sanitizer and medicine, causes concern and uncertainty about the environmental advances that we have been seeking and achieving in recent years (Tenenbaum, 2020; Prata et al., 2020).

Safety concerns related to supermarket purchases during Covid-19 have led to a preference by consumers and suppliers for fresh food packaged in plastic containers (to avoid contamination of food and to extend the shelf life) and the use of single-use food packaging, as well as plastic bags to carry groceries (Sousa, 2020).

Despite the lack of any conclusive evidence for reduced risk of viral transmission from disposable bags, the stance adopted by countries integrates the belief in society that plastic is hygienic. However, the ability of the coronavirus to survive on plastic surfaces can be up to three days compared to paper (3 h), cardboard (1 day), fabric (2 days), which contradicts this view (van Doremalen et al., 2020; Malik et. al. 2020; Vanapelli et al., 2021). Furthermore, it is not clear how reusable grocery bags can contribute to greater risk compared to clothing or shoes, a potential risk that can also be mitigated with proper hand hygiene and personal decontamination. (Silva et al., 2021).

The current scenario in Brazil faces changes in its public policies, as in the laws that seek to minimize environmental impacts on plastic pollution and consequently enable the use of bioplastics. Some laws that prohibit the distribution of disposable plastic materials are suspended indefinitely, as is the case of Law No. 17,261 of January 2020 in the municipality of São Paulo. Action against the law was proposed by the Syndicate of the Plastic Material Industry of the State of São Paulo (Sindiplast), with the justification that the ban at this time can cause problems for the health system, given the situation of a pandemic caused by a highly transmissible virus. The reversal of such policies that restrict the use of disposables plastics causes an increase in the generation of waste from these materials, again inducing an unsustainable culture in consumers and contributing to the global problem of pollution caused by plastics (Prata et al., 2020; Klemeš et al., 2020; Silva et al., 2020).

With restricted recycling flows around the world, the management of single-use plastic waste during the Covid-19 pandemic is being affected. The change in the flow of recycling worldwide results in a lower level of separation and, therefore, plastics are mixed with other types of urban waste, which makes it impossible or difficult to separate and reprocess them (Silva et al., 2021). In Brazil, the problem raises even greater concerns because the impact is also significant concerning the income of the waste pickers’ families, who depend on the selective collection of solid waste for survival in Brazil (Dias et al., 2020).

The pandemic scenario in Brazil is extending the waste management challenges in this already fragile waste management system.

Written by Lais Roncalho de Lima, Rafaela F. Gutierrez and Sandra Cruz.

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.