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!!!

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!

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.