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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.

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.