Intro to Dr. Narayan’s Workshop on the Science of “Biodegradable” Polymers

March 16, 2011

Hello yall! It is a BEAUTIFUL day in Chicago—almost at 60 degrees! I am writing you from my favorite downtown Starbucks. As per my repeated blog statements, today I will begin discussing Dr. Narayan’s workshop on the science of biodegradable/compostable/bio-based polymers.

Context: Dr. Ramani Narayan is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science at MSU. He conducted a four-hour workshop at the Doubletree Resort in Orlando as part of Pira International’s Sustainability in Packaging pre-conference workshops.

Download the presentation here: NARAYAN, Sustainability in Packaging Workshop, Intertech-Pira

Please note that it is extremely technical presentation; therefore, for an explanation of each slide, visit the corresponding blog posts’ sections. Due to the depth and scope of the workshop, this information will be discussed over a series of several blog posts. Today’s focuses only on the introduction of packaging and sustainability in the context of global warming and end of life management.

“Understanding material feedstock choices and end-of-life strategies for Packaging Sustainability: Biobased and Biodegradable/Compostable Plastics”

Introduction:

Narayan is a very entertaining speaker! He began the workshop by jokingly aligning himself with the plastic folk (“are there any paper people in here?!?”), emphasizing that regardless of what camp you fall into, the underlying themes of the workshop are applicable to any packaging material type. Because the allotted time for this workshop was four hours, Narayan began by contextualizing the relationship between the environment and packaging, subsequently explaining the organization of the material to move from a macro to micro level.

The three “legs” of sustainability, which I am sure you are all very familiar with, was the first slide; that which was unique about Narayan’s treatment, however, was his emphasis on “carbon cycling” within the “environmental” leg of the sustainability concept. He then used this emphasis on carbon cycling between land/air/water/energy (renewable vs. fossil) to begin an explanation of global warming, claiming that regardless of if you believe in the concept or not, the reality of the situation is that the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has been substantially increasing since the industrial revolution. While there are natural origins of carbon emissions into the atmosphere i.e. volcanic explosions, the rate at which carbon has increased in our atmosphere is without a doubt the result of human activities inherent in the process of production and distribution.

The second slide illustrated this reality, showing how the “annual emissions to the atmosphere (Pg C),” though rising since the 1850s, dramatically spikes from 1950 to present day.

Narayan explained the whole “global warming” thing as follows: C02 is a heat trapping gas—there is and will always continue to be a healthy amount necessary to sustain the chemistry of the atmosphere. However, the amount of C02 emitted into the atmosphere has dramatically increased since the 1950s. It’s a simple cause and effect relationship: more C02 is being emitted into our atmosphere; C02 is a heat trapping gas. Consequentially, the temperature of the planet will rise, plain and simple. Narayan then argued that our role as stewards is to MANAGE the C02 distribution in our atmosphere, not eliminate it. If we continue to do nothing, the temperature will continue to climb, and eventually, we will reach a “tipping point,” although it is impossible to know when that will be and the inherent repercussions thereof.

Soooo what does this have to do with packaging? Everything—from the Walmart Scorecard to the metrics constructed by the Global Packaging Project, the world of “sustainable packaging” is intent on being able to quantify the “carbon footprint” of it’s product(s)/package(s).

Narayan then explained how there is confusion insofar as carbon footprint is but one of two important concepts when trying to quantify the sustainability of a product/package. Therefore, it is important to understand “sustainable packaging” as living in two different, but related, camps: the first is that of the carbon world; the second, the end of life management world. Neither one is more important than the other—it just depends on what your priorities are.

Taken together, Narayan argued that the two main opportunities facing packaging are: carbon footprint reductions—global warming/climate change issue; and, end-of-life management—recycling, waste-to-energy, biodegradability in targeted disposal systems like composting (compostable plastics). It is important to understand these two opportunities as different but related when making decisions about packaging.

Before moving into a discussion of bio based products concepts, Narayan touches on the notion of “biodegradation.” He explains how “biodegradable” is sort of like the new “it” world as conveyed via consumer preference (“biodegradability” is often cited as the number one desired sustainable packaging attribute in consumer market research studies, though “recyclable” is also a repeated favorite), yet technically, EVERYTHING is biodegradable—we are too! Given time and the environment, everything will break down and be consumed via microorganisms present in the natural environment. However, without specifying a disposal environment in which said product/package will “biodegrade” i.e. industrial composting facilities, anaerobic digestion, etc.—the term means absolutely NOTHING!

He then proposed the following inquiries:

How does your package fit into “sustainability”?
What is the feedstock?
What is the end of life?

We will now move onto a discussion of how to gain a value proposition in the context of packaging material feedstock.

Part 1: Bio-based products concepts

To come.

Thanks for your time my sustainable packaging friends! For those of you attending Greenerpackage’s Sustainable Packaging Symposium in Chicago, have a blast in my city!!!

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