Hi!

Happy Monday Funday!

Today’s post is a little of this, a little of that!

First, I am going to this “green” networking event in Chicago on Wednesday! Calling all fellow Sustainable Chicagoians; I hope to see you there!

Second, I was reading through PMMI’s Pack Expo 2010 Trends Report and Dordan is highlighted in the “Improve Sustainability” section thanks to our popular Bio Resin Show N Tell! Download the report here, and we are on page 14! Neato!

Also this is sort of random, but my brother was quoted in a Chicago Time Out piece about “wrap rage.” Check it out here. Rock N Roll Sean!

AND, this lady I met in Atlanta from the Freedonia Group (the organization that does all those fancy research reports that cost an arm and a leg) emailed me this abstract of their report on “Green Packaging.” Though it is only an introduction, there is still some really good information, so check it out!

US Industry Forecast, Green Packaging

This is going to sound long winded but here me out: Last week I emailed a colleague of mine at The Packaging Association about the winner of the PAC Green Den Award. For those of you unfamiliar, the Packaging Association hosted a Green Den at Pack Expo 2010, which was basically a Show N Tell of sustainable products that the audience voted on to determine which was “the most sustainable” or whatever. In a recent press release, it was explained that the winner of the PAC Green Den award was the biodegradable plastic additive, EcoPure. For those of you who do not follow my blog regularly, I devoted several posts to trying to understand the claims made by the distributor of this product. Visit posts titled “And the Investigation Begins” from early September for more information on this product and its claims. Anyway, I was surprised that EcoPure won this award, because in all the research I did, I was never able to truly understand how breaking plastic into tiny tiny pieces is perceived as a sustainable end-of-life-management option for plastic packaging, assuming it does in fact “work.”

So this is what I wrote:

Hello!

I hope you and your family had a very Merry Christmas!!!

This is random but I was looking through the PMMI Trends from Pack Expo Report and I was surprised to learn that EcoLogic won a PAC Green Den award for their biodegradable plastic additive EcoPure…

The reason I bring this up is because I spent a lot of time researching the claims of this company and found that they are sort of full of it… the ASTM 5111 standard they site for biodegradation in a landfill is a certification for a test, not representative of passing said test. While I don’t want to get into the he-said-she-said debate, I was just curious what your thoughts on this product are. Perhaps I am confused or misinformed. I was just under the impression that it is products like these that confuse “sustainability” as it pertains to packaging.

Again, I am not trying to be a jerk; this just peaked my interest…

And his response:

Hi Chandler,

I’ve been off for a few days and just back in today.

It appears that you have done more research that the public audience that voted and selected this at PACKEXPO. A professional panel provides feedback at the session and it is the public audience that votes on all presentations. PAC is the facilitator of the process and remains objective during the process. The panelists and audience are the judge and jury.
Hope to see you soon.

YIKES.

And I leave you with this fabulous picture of my pops and I from our interview at Pack Expo 2010, courtesy of PlasticsNews:

copyright Plastics News, reprinted with permission

AWWWWWWWW

Tootles!

And the investigation begins!

September 9, 2010

Hello and happy September!

I hope everyone had a labor less Labor Day! I was able to get away to the beautiful dessert oasis of Arizona! For those of you who have never been, Arizona is beautiful! The vegetation is so bizarre and sparse and the horizon looks like it travels forever. And the stars! Don’t even get me started on the stars; all I know is that I was able to see more stars than I knew currently existed living in downtown Chicago for the last 5 years! All in all, good times.

Before I forget, I found the BEST Mexican restaurant in downtown Scottsdale! Called Los Olivos, this no-fuss authentic Mexican restaurant has been family owned and operated since 1919 and serves tortias bigger than my head, which you rip up to create your own tantalizing tacos, fajitas, burritos, what have you. Awesome!

AND, I went here!

http://www.rockstargallery.net/

If you like rock n’ roll, then you may as well have died and gone to heaven!

I have some super exciting Dordan news. While waiting for my flight from St. Louis to Chicago last week (I was traveling on business), I was contacted by someone from a National TV show who is investigating doing a series in 2011 about sustainability and business. Somehow, this show’s research team found Dordan and requested an interview about our sustainability efforts. After speaking with the assistant producer, I was asked for another interview, this time with Dordan CEO and President Daniel Slavin, to determine if Dordan’s Story to Sustainability would be a good fit for their series! Our interview is scheduled for today at 3:00. Wish me luck! Maybe I will get discovered as the actress I always knew I could be! Ha!

So that’s neato!

And now let’s talk packaging and sustainability.

As some of you know, several weeks ago one of Dordan’s customers inquired into this new “biodegradable” additive that when added to traditional polymers, render the plastic biodegradable in any disposal environment; be it by the side of the road, in our waterways, in a landfill, etc.

The company that distributes this product just had their first ad in the September issue of Pack World. Check out their ad in the digital addition here, located on the right hand side of page 55.

http://digitaledition.qwinc.com/publication/?i=43523

Anyway, I set up a conference call with a rep from this company to learn about this additive’s various properties and afterwards, was more confused than before! I quickly put in a call to Robert Carlson of CalRecycle; Robert and I met last year at the SPC members-only meeting in Atlanta and he quickly became my go-to-guy for all things sustainable packaging. For some of my more diligent blog followers, you will note that Robert helped me with the inception and execution of my clamshell recycling initiative; he is a doll!

After providing a quick summary of our conversation, Robert mentioned that these “biodegradable additives” sounded a lot like the school of products known as “oxo-biodegradables,” which he explained as follows:

Oxo-biodegradation, or those products considered “oxo-biodegradable,” require/s oxygen and sunlight to initiate the breakdown process. Oxo-biodegradables have been used in Europe for some time now, though much concern has been voiced over issues pertaining to the complete biodegradation of the polymer (total consumption via microorganisms present in intended disposal environment); and, ambiguities surrounding biodegradation testing standards. Further concern has been raised about these additives’ impact on existing recycling technologies insofar as they may jeopardize the value of the post-consumer material by rendering it partially—or entirely—“biodegradable.”

After chit-chatting for close to an hour about biodegradable plastics and everything under the sun, Robert concluded that he would check out the company’s website and get back to me with more insight.

In the meantime, I conducted some preliminary research on the term “oxo-biodegradable” as I knew so little about the concept or the science behind it.

I reached out to my contact from a working-industry group that Dordan is a member company of, inquiring about his opinion on “oxo-biodegradation.” He subsequently sent me a plethora of documents on the issue. While I was waiting to retrieve these documents from the printer for my analysis, I received an email from Robert:

Chandler,

I’ve passed this on but from what I read, it doesn’t seem like it IS oxy-degradable. It seems like it’s something different…however I’m not sure what to make of it so I’m checking in with a few of my co-workers…

Hmmmmmmmm…

I then sent the company rep with whom I spoke about these biodegradable an email requesting a synopsis of his products’ attributes. This is what he sent me:

Quick facts:

  • Biodegrades plastics to humus (soil), CO2 & methane (converts to energy);
  • 100% organic – non-starch based;
  • ASTM tested and validated with data available;
  • Recyclable;
  • FDA compliant;
  • Does not change the manufacturing process;
  • Added to current resins at approximately 1%;
  • Does not affect shelf-life;
  • Does not change tensile or physical properties;

 WOW, I thought to myself as I skimmed over the “facts” about this product…what do these claims actually mean?

 Let’s start with a biggie—certification. I put in a call to the company rep, asking what certification they had received for their marketed “biodegradable additive.” He referenced ASTM 5511, which he explained as certification for plastic biodegradation in a landfill.

I rallied this information to Robert. What follows is his feedback:

Hey Chandler,

I asked a few people in my office about that ASTM testing standard as well as the potential for these plastics to degrade in the landfill.

This is what I received from our degradable plastics expert:

The intent of ASTM 5511 is not to establish the requirements for labeling of materials and products as biodegradable in landfills. ASTM 5511 is a standard test method, not a standard specification. As such, ASTM 5511 provides the testing procedure to measure the degree and rate of biodegradation of high solids in anaerobic digestive systems. This procedure is not intended to simulate the environment of any particular high-solids anaerobic-digestion system. However, it is expected to resemble the environment of a high-solids anaerobic-digestion process operated under optimum conditions. This test method may also resemble, not simulate, some conditions in biologically active landfills.

Weird bears; how convoluted can we get? A certification for a testing standard, not a certification of complying to said standard? Huh?

I googled “ASTM 5511” and found that I had to buy the Standard to have access to its qualifications. Dang.

 Then I sent the company rep another email, inquiring into some of the other claims made:

 Hey,

This is Chandler Slavin with Dordan, we spoke several days ago about your biodegradable plastic additive.

First, thanks for the information about your product! I am in the process of looking through the literature and performing some research.

What follows are some questions about your product:

One of the claims about your product is 100% recyclability, which implies that if added to a traditional RPET beverage bottle, it would not result in the breakdown of the resin when reprocessed and remanufacured into, let’s say, green industrial strapping. Can you expand on how a biodegradable additive does not render the recyclate “weak” when compared with recyclate without a presence of this biodegradable additive?

Does this additive allow for the biodegradation of plastic in other disposal environments besides a landfill, such as on the side of the road (as litter), in our marine and freshwater environments, etc.?Are you familiar with the concept “bioaccumulation,” which results from the accumulation of small plastic particulates being ingested throughout the food chain? If you product allows for the biodegradation of plastic, does it ensure the complete breakdown of the polymer i.e. total consumption of material by microorganisms in disposal environment?  Thanks for your time; I look forward to hearing from you soon!

Chandler

The next day, I received the following “answers:”

Chandler,

In regard to your first inquiry:

Our product is a nutrient that attracts microbes when they are present. PET or RPET going through distribution will not come in contact with active microbes and therefore no biodegradation will occur. There would therefore be no reduction in physical properties until the plastic is placed in a landfill or compost. We have experience in this area and I can tell you that the material is not weakened.

In regard to your second inquiry:

Yes, we believe so. We have run ASTM D 5988 (litter test) and have seen very nice results. We have some indications for ASTM D7081 (marine, salt or brackish) testing that we will have good biodegradation. However, I don’t have data here that I can share. Regarding the freshwater, we believe we will have good biodegradation; we are looking at testing in this area and have not done any to date.

In regard to your third inquiry:

This really is applicable to oxodegradable additives. Our product does not fall into this category. Our product attracts the microbes that then take the long chain carbons in synthetic polymers and break them down to CO2 and CH4. We don’t leave plastic particulate behind.

Thanks!

And around we go!

Tune in tomorrow to learn about the validity of these claims; reference will be made to many different position papers published by the Society of Plastics Industry Bioplastics Council, European Bioplastics, Biodegradable Products Institute, and more!

It’s great to be back!

Greetings all!

Today’s post is a continuation of yesterdays and details exactly how Phil built us a composter out of post-industrial materials. Enjoy!

After we gathered our composter materials and the needed tools and amenities, we started talking through the concept

After conversing, Phil thought that it would be cool if we had two compartments for our composter because, as alluded to yesterday, this allows us to have different batches of material based on how long the material has been “composting.” Also, in having two compartments for the composter, we can play mad scientist with the bio-based resins we have sampled and see how they do in fact break down, and if so, over what kind of time frame. As discussed in a previous post, we have some concern about bio-based resins breaking down completely i.e. being completely consumed by the microorganisms present in the disposal environment. If bio-based resins do not completely break down, then we walk the risk of introducing a ton of teeny tiny plastic particulates into the environment, which could travel into our waterways, be consumed by tiny things that get consumed by bigger things and on it goes until humans are ingesting tiny bits of plastic. Yuck! The fancy term is “bioaccumulation” and it is no good.

Where was I going…oh yea: so while we won’t be able to tell, obviously, if the bio-based material breaks down completely because we don’t have insane microscopic vision, we will be able to watch the degredation process in real time, which I think is pretty neato! In theory, the second compartment could be devoted entirely to watching different bio-based resins breakdown; the remaining compost, therefore, would not be used on our farm next spring because the risk that it may contain plastic particulates. Perhaps we could even send this compost to a “lab” to determine if the plastic particulates have in fact been entirely consumed…imagine the possibilities!

Please note, however, than most bio-based resins are certified to breakdown in an industrial composting facility, which is much more sophisticated than our composter. Therefore, I am unsure if most of these materials, certified with the ASTM D6400 Standard for Industrial Compostability, will break down at all, as our composter resembles more of a home composter than an industrial one. We did, on the other hand, just sample a new bio-based resin, which has received certification for “OK to home Compost.” This stuff is definitely going in our mighty composter to see how it breaks down!

And, how cool is this, but when we decide to start playing mad scientist, I will take pictures of the degredation process over time so you can see how a converted package morphs and breaks down in the disposal environment in which it is intended for. Splendid!

Alright, let’s continue with our how-to construct a composter:

So yeah, we decided on two compartments.

Then Phil suggested that we add some kind of mechanism, which would allow us to access the compost pile without having Go Go Gadget arms. After all, the composter is over 4 feet tall, which would make access to the material difficult as would it make “tending” to the compost problematic. Phil came up with another solution: why not add a tracked, wooden component to one side of the composter, which would then receive a thin piece of wood that you could move up and down along the track! Sort of like a curtain, this wood veil could be easily manipulated by the person tending to the compost, moving it up to access the mix and moving it down to conceal the pile from critters and excessive wind, rain, sun, etc.

So that was the approach Phil took toward constructing our compost: two compartments with a retractable side wall built out of post-industrial wood pallets.

Once we were all in agreement, Phil began working on “piratizing” our pallets. This consisted of him breaking down the pallets with a pry-bar in hopes of gathering enough material to carry out his vision. 

Basically, Phil intended on have two pallets per side of the composter, with a “divider” that cut the area of the composter in half, thereby creating two compartments. In order to accomplish this he began by attaching two skids together via a drill and nails. See:

After assembling one side of the composter, Phil repeated this process and created another side wall. He then attached these together, creating an “L” form.

Prior to calling it a day, Phil attached one pallet to the newly constructed “L,” which would serve as the divider between the other compartment, yet to be created. Check it out:

The next day, Phil finished the divider wall by attaching another skid, and created the entire second compartment. Check out the skid organization:

He also designed and constructed our “opening mechanism,” illustrated here:

And TA DA, we have a fully functioning and arguably adorable composter; I’m so proud:

I can’t wait to paint it! I’m thinking polka dots!

Tune in tomorrow to learn about oxo-degradables and other biodedradable plastics.

Hello my packaging and sustainability friends!

I sound like a broken record but again, I apologize for not blogging this week; please forgive me!

I have been super busy with creating new marketing materials and restructuring our advertising mix on greenerpackage.com. Check out our new and improved Design for Sustainability white paper here: http://www.greenerpackage.com/corporate_strategy.

And my fabulous Recycling Report here: http://www.greenerpackage.com/blisters_clamshells and here http://www.greenerpackage.com/recycling.

And guess what: PlasticsNews is going to publish my recycling report in the “perspective” section. Look out for it in print in the next 3-4 weeks.

Oh and for all you Packaging World E-newsletter subscribers, look out for our Recycling Report in the August New Issue Alert, scheduled to go out tomorrow! My ad man told me that pictures of people generate more interest (and therefore clicks and leads), so I include the picture of me giving the thumbs-up sign in my ghost buster suit in the garbage during our first waste audit (the one before I got all sweaty and sad). Ha! Good times…

I don’t know if I told you guys but when Dordan was exhibiting at the Walmart Expo I met a gentleman from SupplierHub, which is this online education exchange for private packaging buyers and sellers for Walmart. Anyway he was super nice and I got him hooked on my blog (Hello if your reading this!) and now we are advertising on this site! Go Dordan!

And lastly, I have implemented some changes on Dordan’s website under the “sustainability” tab to reflect our new social and environmental sustainability efforts. While I still have to create some of the language for the new pages it is “live” so check it out; I am quite proud: www.dordan.com.

Advertising excuses aside, the main reason I haven’t been blogging is because I have been passed the Pack Expo baton, which means I am coordinating the show for the first time ever. I was totally freaking out because I just inherited this project and I thought the due date for submitting all the order forms was August 17th but its SEPTEMBER 17th, phew! So now I can relax and resume my blogging!

Ok, enough random embellishments for the day, let’s talk sustainability!

We are going to begin construction on our composter next Tuesday, yippee! I sent an email to the woman who is helping us (also the farmer who is going to use our land to grow organics for the Woodstock community), asking if we needed to begin collecting our food waste. If so, we have real motivation to begin educating our employees about source separation; that is, segregating out the food waste from the food packaging waste, garbage, and recyclables.

As an aside, we just got in some new bio-based material to sample, which is certified “OK to home compost.” This material is unique in that it exceeds the standard 120 degrees F heat deformation temperature currently dominating the market AND can break down in ANY disposal environment, besides landfill. If this is “true,” then this is crazy cool as one of my biggest concerns with biodegradable plastic packaging is that it often doesn’t make it to its intended disposal environment, which is usually an industrial composting facility (D6400 Standard for Industrial Composting). ANYWAY I’m excited to play mad scientist and test the performance of this new material’s biodegradation by tossing it our soon to be erected compost pile. While I will not be able to determine if it completely biodegrades (no plastic particulates available after 90-180 days) because I don’t have insanely microscopic eyeballs, I will be able to determine if it breaks down until no longer visible. By conducting a test of this material’s biodegradability in our compost pile, I will be more comfortable adding it to the reservoir of resins Dordan offers our customers and prospects. So that’s pretty cool…

In regard to my work with our community schools:

I met with the co-chair of the Environmental Task Force for Woodstock School District 200 yesterday. He was super duper nice and I liked him right away! The ETF, he explained, is this organization of administrative folk, including school principals, and two student representatives, who discuss and implement different sustainability initiatives at the schools. One project they are working on this fall is an energy contest, whereby the D200 schools compete to see which one can reduce their energy use the most. They envision having this big thermometer, of sorts, which shows how much energy they have used per week compared with the previous school year. Sounds neato!

The co-chair of the ETF was also interested in having me talk about the field of sustainability as a profession in hopes of generating more interest in environmental sciences. I think this is great! I can’t believe I may be one of these people that comes into schools on “career day;” how funny!

As the meeting came to an end, I provided him with a couple suggestions for how I thought my work could enhance the goals of the ETF. I offered COMPASS tutorials so students could be introduced to life cycle analysis as a methodology for assessing the sustainability of a product or service; recycling education; and, a discussion on environmental advertising and manipulative and misinformed advertising claims. I still remember taking a class in high school called Rhetorical Analysis of Media, which introduced for the first time the idea that I was being marketed to as a consumer and encouraged an awareness and analysis of said media. It was such a cool class and I would love the opportunity to encourage this kind of reflection among students in the sphere of environmental marketing claims, as so many are, in my opinion, flirting with that fine line between reality and greenwashing. In a nut shell, I am really excited to get involved with D200 schools and help spread the love of all things sustainable!

Talk tomorrow!

Hey guys!

Oh man I have so much fun stuff to do so I won’t be able to really post today.

That being said, check out my shout out in Plastics News’ , The Plastics Blog:

One processor’s thoughts on bioplastics

By Don Loepp on June 14, 2010 1:27 PM ET | 1 Comment | No TrackBacks

Bioplastics are a hot topic among recyclers — especially biodegradable resins. Are processors paying attention?

Dordan Manufacturing Co. Inc., a thermoformer in Woodstock, Ill., has been studying the issue for some time, and today Chandler Slavin, the company’s sustainability coordinator, posted a thoughtful item on the topic.

Bio-based plastics, environmental considerations,” on GreenerPackage.com, compares bioplastics like PLA to conventional resins like PET.”Taken together, one would assume that the 2005 Ingeo PLA is a more sustainable option than traditional plastics, as manifest through this study,” she concludes. “However, it is important to take into account the other dimensions discussed above, such as end of life management, complete biodegradation, and sustainable sourcing. By understanding the advantages and disadvantages of bio-based resins from an environmental perspective, packaging professionals can make informed material selections and truly comprehend the ecological ramifications of their packaging selections and designs.”

It’s nice to see a processor taking the time to do the research into the pros and cons of using bioplastics, and I know that Dordan isn’t alone. I get a few phone calls a month from processors with questions about what materials are “most sustainable,” and I know others at Plastics News get the same question.

As I wrote back in January, I think most processors are willing and able to adapt to their customers’ materials-related sustainability goals — they just need information and guidance.Processors are flexible about using recycled content, or bio-based resins, or switching from one virgin material to another. It all depends on cost, performance and what the customer wants. 

Comments (1)
Matt Kerkhoff:

Great post. It’s amazing the turn around in interest concerning environmentally alternatives from just a few years ago. While environmentalists cheer the effort, the true story lies in the market, which has demanded these materials and changes. The big question always was “do people want it”? As of 2010, it looks like they want more choices concerning recycling, sustainability, and how best to take care of the planet. 

Posted by Matt Kerkhoff | June 14, 2010 4:27 PM 

 Neato!!!

I will have a super good post for you all tomorrow–and to give you a clue, it has to do with sustainability! Ha!

Tootles!

Holly Toledo!

May 21, 2010

Happy Friday!

So I have been working on a presentation on everything sustainability for one of Dordan’s customers. Sustainability and Packaging 101, per se.

Anywoo, it took me two days and 190 slides to finish, but I am FINALLY DONE!

It’s jam packed with good stuff–basically a summary of all my work to date–so check it out!

Sustainability and Packaging Presentation, Blog

Enjoy the heat-wave this weekend, my fellow Chicagoians!

Also, please do not reproduce or distribute without my written consent. Thanks!

Hello world! Today is officially the most beautiful day—the sun is shining and the weather is sweet. If I only I weren’t stuck in a cubicle…

Soooooo because I have had so many of Dordan’s customers ask us about bio-based resins, I decided to compile a brief report, which details the various environmental ramifications one must consider when discussing bio-based plastics. Soon this report will be accessible on our website but because you are all so special, I have attached it below here. A sneak peak, per se. Wow I am a nerd.

Enjoy!

Bio-Based Resins: Environmental Considerations

Biodegradability is an end of life option that allows one to harness the power of microorganisms present in a selected disposal environment to completely remove plastic products designed for biodegradability from the environmental compartment via the microbial food chain in a timely, safe, and efficacious manner.[1]

Designing plastics that can be completely consumed by microorganisms present in the disposal environment in a short time frame can be a safe and environmentally responsible approach for the end-of-life management of single use, disposable packaging.[2] That being said, when considering any bio-based resin, there are some environmental considerations one must take into account. These include: end-of-life management; complete biodegradation,; its agriculturally-based feedstock; and, the energy required and the greenhouse gasses emitted during production.  

Before I expand on these concepts below, let us quickly discuss the biological processes that degradable plastics endure during biodegradation.

Microorganisms utilize carbon product to extract chemical energy for their life processes. They do so by:

  1. Breaking the material (carbohydrates, carbon product) into small molecules by secreting enzymes or the environment does it.
  2. Transporting the small molecules inside the microorganisms cell.
  3. Oxidizing the small molecules (again inside the cell) to CO2 and water, and releasing energy that is utilized by the microorganism for its life processes in a complex biochemical process involving participation of three metabolically interrelated processes. [3]

If bio-based plastic packaging harnesses microbes to completely utilize the carbon substrate and remove it from the environmental compartment, entering into the microbial food chain, then biodegradability is a good end of life option for single use disposable packaging.

End-of-life management considerations:

Because biodegradation is an end of life option that harnesses microorganisms present in the selected disposal environment, one must clearly identify the ‘disposal environment’ when discussing the biodegradability of a bio-based resin: examples include biodegradability under composting conditions, under soil conditions, under anaerobic conditions (anaerobic digestors, landfills), or marine conditions. Most bio-based resins used in packaging applications are designed to biodegrade in an industrial composting facility and one should require some type of certification or standard from material suppliers, ensuring compostability.

Unfortunately, little research has been done on how many industrial composting facilities exist in the United States and how bio-based plastic packaging impacts the integrity of the compost. However, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition did perform a survey of 40 composting facilities in the U.S., which provides some insight. According to their research, 36 of the 40 facilities surveyed accept compostable packaging. These facilities reported no negative impact of including bio-based plastic packaging in the compost. Of the 4 facilities that do not accept compostable packaging, 3 are taking certain packaging on a pilot basis and are considering accepting compostable packaging in the future. Of the facilities surveyed, 67.5% require some kind of certification of compostability i.e. ASTM, BPI, etc.

In addition, because value for composters is found in organic waste, I assume most facilities would not accept bio-based plastic packaging for non-food applications because the lack of associated food waste and therefore value. In other words, as Susan Thoman of Cedar Grove Composting articulated in her presentation at the spring SPC meeting, composters only want compostable food packaging because the associated food waste adds value to the compost whereas the compostable packaging has no value, positive or negative, to the integrity of the compost product. 

It is also important to note that because there are so few industrial composting facilities available, the likelihood that your bio-based plastic packaging will find its way to its intended end of life management environment is rare. While the idea of biodegradation and compostability for plastic packaging may resonate with consumers, the industrial composting infrastructure is in its infancy and requires a considerable amount of investment in order to develop to the point where it would be an effective and economical option to manage plastic packaging waste post consumer.

Complete biodegradability considerations:

A number of polymers in the market are designed to degradable i.e. they fragment into smaller pieces and may degrade to residues invisible to the naked eye. While it is assumed that the breakdown products will eventually biodegrade there is no data to document complete biodegradability within a reasonably short time period (e.g. a single growing season/one year). Hence hydrophobic, high surface area plastic residues may migrate into water and other compartments of the ecosystem.[4]

In a recent Science article Thompson et al. (2004) reported that plastic debris around the globe can erode (degrade) away and end up as microscopic granular or fiber-like fragments, and these fragments have been steadily accumulating in the oceans. Their experiments show that marine animals consume microscopic bits of plastic, as seen in the digestive tract of an amphipod.

The Algalita Marine Research Foundation[5] report that degraded plastic residues can attract and hold hydrophobic elements like PCB and DDT up to one million times background levels. The PCB’s and DDT’s are at background levels in soil and diluted our so as to not pose significant risk. However, degradable plastic residues with these high surface areas concentrate these chemicals, resulting in a toxic legacy in a form that may pose risks to the environment.

Therefore, designing degradable plastics without ensuring that the degraded fragments are completely assimilated by the microbial populations in the disposal infrastructure in a short time period has the potential to harm the environment more that if it was not made to degrade.

Agriculturally-based feedstock considerations:

Most commercially available bio-based resins are produced from sugar or starch derived from food crops such as corn and sugarcane.[6]Over the past few years, the use of food crops to produce biofuels has become highly controversial; the same may happen with bio-based resins. However, this is only if the scale of bio-based polymer production grows. According to Telles VP Findlen, “If the bioplastics industry grows to be 10% of the traditional plastics industry, then around 100 billion pounds of starch will be necessary, and there is no question that that will have an effect on agricultural commodities.”[7]

This sentiment is echoed by Jason Clay of the World Wild Life Fund. Because sugar is the most productive food crop[8] Clay explained, it makes an ideal feedstock for bio-based resin production; however, if all Bio-PE and Bio-PET came from sugarcane, we would need 2.5 times as much land in sugarcane. Unfortunately, this can not be done sustainably because, according to the Living Planet Report,[9] our current demand for the Earth’s resources is 1.25 times what the planet can sustain.[10] Put another way, on September 25th of this year our resource use surpassed what is sustainable. What this would mean as a financial issue is that we are living off our principle.[11]

Therefore, when considering bio-based resins, one should take into consideration the feedstock from which it is derived and the various environmental requirements that go into procuring said feedstock. While the current production of bio-based resins is not to scale to compete with sugarcane production for food, it is important to understand the environmental and social ramifications of sourcing materials from agriculturally based products.

Energy requirements and fossil fuel consumption of production:

Obviously sourcing plastics from bio-based resources as opposed to fossil fuel is an intriguing option for those looking to reduce the burden of packaging on the environment. However, if the energy required to produce bio-based plastics exceeds the energy consumed in the production of traditional resins, then the sustainability profile of bio-based plastics can be compromised.

When bio-based plastics first became commercially available, the processing technologies were not developed to the point where producing plastics from bio-based sources consumed less energy than producing traditional, fossil-fuel based plastics. However, the bio plastics industry has dramatically evolved and is now able to produce certain bio-based resins with less energy when compared with traditional resins. Natureworks Ingeo PLA (2005), for instance, is processed in such a way that it actually consumes less energy and emits fewer greenhouse gas equivalents during production when compared with traditional, fossil-fuel based resins.[12]

The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU), Heidelberg, Germany, conducted the head-to-head lifecycle comparison on more than 40 different combinations of clamshell packaging made from Ingeo PLA, PET and rPET. Both PLA and rPET clamshells outperformed PET packaging in terms of lower overall greenhouse gas emissions and lower overall energy consumed and PLA exceeded rPET in its environmental performance.

According to the study, clamshell packaging consisting of 100 percent rPET emitted 62.7 kilograms of C02 equivalents per 1,000 clamshells over its complete life cycle. PLA clamshells emitted even less, with 61.7 kilograms C02 equivalents per 1,000 clamshells. Energy consumed over the lifecycle for 100 percent rPET clamshells was 0.88 GJ. This compared to o.72 GJ for the Ingeo 2005 resin, which is an 18% reduction in energy consumed.

Taken together, one would assume that the 2005 Ingeo PLA is a more sustainable option than traditional plastics, as manifest through this study. However, it is important to take into account the other dimensions discussed above, such as end of life management, complete biodegradation, and sustainable sourcing. By understanding the advantages and disadvantages of bio-based resins from an environmental perspective, packaging professionals can make informed material selections and truly comprehend the ecological ramifications of their packaging selections and designs.


[1] Ramani Narayan, “Biodegradability…” Bioplastics Magazine, Jan. 2009. Narayan is a professor from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at Michigan State University.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See www.algalita.org/pelagic_plastic.html.

[6] Jon Evans, “Bioplastics get Growing,” Plastics Engineering, Feb. 2010, www.4spe.org, p. 19.

[7] Ibid, p. 19.

[8] 1-2 orders of magnitude more calories per ha than any other food crop. Information taken from Jason Clay’s presentation, “Biomaterial Procurement: Selected Resources,” at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s spring meeting in Boston.

[9] The Living Plant Report is a biannual analysis of the carrying capacity of the globe compared with resource consumption: Population x consumption > planet.

[10] Clay, SPC spring meeting presentation.

[11] Ibid. 

[12] M. Patel, R.Narayan in Natural Fibers, Biopolymers and Biocomposites.