Packaging is one way that brands are seeking to tackle their environmental footprint, but bio-based alternatives risk fanning the flames of increased deforestation. Sarah LaBrecque reports on the search for more sustainable approaches
If the packaging value chain had its own social media platform, bio-based would certainly be #trending. With everyone from Burger King to Nivea experimenting with plant-based materials, seemingly not a day goes by without a new corporate announcement proclaiming green is the new black. Or rather, that packaging made of fossil-based plastic, rather fittingly, is going the way of the dinosaur.
On paper, it all sounds really positive. Bio-based materials such as wood fibre or sugarcane are, if responsibly managed, renewable resources. They typically break down more readily than conventional plastic and contribute broadly to the decarbonisation of supply chains. Indeed, major players in the packaging market are going bio-based as part of their wider sustainability targets. Tetra Pak, for instance, is working on a 100% fibre carton and in 2014 debuted its Tetra Rex Plant-based carton. Such product developments slot into its four-pronged strategy to reach net-zero emissions in its own operations by 2030.
Going the natural materials route also aligns well with the public’s growing distaste for plastic.
It is one thing to be recyclable and another entirely to actually be recycled
In addition to regular announcements for bio-based packaging pilot projects, a wave of corporations have recently set public targets to reduce the use of virgin plastics in their products. Mondelēz has committed to a 5% virgin plastic reduction target by 2025, and PepsiCo will make a similar announcement later this year. In order to meet these goals, strategies such as packaging redesign will be deployed alongside the replacement of virgin plastic with bio-based materials. And the public couldn’t be more pleased. A UK study by YouGov in 2019 revealed that nearly 50% of people feel guilty about the amount of plastic they use.
But what are the trade-offs involved in swapping one material for another? The renewability of so-called renewable resources rests in large part on the shoulders of humans. The other elephant in the room is of course, recyclability. It is one thing to be recyclable and another entirely to actually be recycled.
Critics argue that material swaps may shroud more important issues: the total environmental impact of packaging over its lifecycle, and overconsumption.
Nani Pajunen is a resource sustainability specialist for the Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra. “The sourcing and processing of natural resources materials, fuels and food causes approximately half the global greenhouse gas emissions and 90% of biodiversity loss,” she says, citing figures from a report by the International Resource Panel. Despite these statistics covering a vast swathe of the economy – the resources needed to create all of humanity’s materials, fuels and food – they’re still staggering, evoking images of plundered forests and lifeless landscapes. “Biodiversity loss and the climate crisis can only be solved by ending the overconsumption of natural resources and instead only using materials that are already in use,” she continues.
Her thoughts echo those of Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of Canadian non-profit, Canopy. (See ‘We can’t protect 30% of nature if we’re chopping down forests to make t-shirts’) The organisation campaigns for the protection of endangered and ancient forests. “We're in a turnaround decade for our planet so we need to be really careful that we don't trade in one environmental disaster for another. That we̕re not jumping from the frying pan of using plastics into the fire of deforestation and forest degradation,” she cautions, pointing out how 3 billion trees a year are used for packaging alone. She also emphasises how the surge in e-commerce over the last few years is putting an even greater demand on forest products. “There's seven times the amount of packaging in e-retail than bricks and mortar purchases,” she adds.
We see the FSC as offering the most credible, universal standard for our paperboard
But what about the role of certification? Do seals of approval such as those provided by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), for example, mitigate the need to reduce consumption of forest products? For large corporates like Tetra Pak, certifications are vital in providing the assurances they need that bio-based materials have been responsibly managed and sourced. “We ensure that 100% of the paperboard in our packages comes from Forest Stewardship Council certified or other controlled sources,” says Markus Pfanner, vice president, sustainability at Tetra Pak. “We see the FSC as offering the most credible, universal standard for our paperboard.”
Pfanner adds that Tetra Pak relies on internal and external audits to ensure the FSC process is being correctly implemented, and in 2020 received an “A” in both climate change action and forest protection from non-profit CDP.
Canopy's Rycroft views FSC certification as one of the strategies companies can take to ensure the safeguarding of forests, but if there was a hierarchy, she says, it would be at the bottom. “We need to prioritise the use of recycled content and the use of next generation alternative fibres like agricultural residues that would otherwise be burnt,” she says. “And once you've gone down that hierarchy, you then use FSC certified plantations that are well-sited and well-managed. There is absolutely no place in the world for [using] high-carbon, high-biodiversity value forests anymore.”
To that end, Canopy has developed a campaign called Pack4Good, which helps companies avoid the use of endangered or ancient forests in their packaging. Instead, they advocate to “diversify the fibre basket … [and] kickstart commercial production of truly sustainable alternatives,” says Rycroft. “[Materials] made from agricultural residues, made from recycled fibre, made from potentially, ‘on-purpose’ fibres, if they have a lower footprint and don't have other unintended consequences.” One of these promising agricultural products is wheat straw, she says, a by-product of the wheat industry.
Pajunen of Sitra also cites lifecycle analysis and looking at reuse models as precursors to any decision about what material to use in a packaging. Tetra Pak, however, has chosen not to focus as heavily on these aspects. “Consumers are increasingly advocating towards reusable packaging or even less or no packaging wherever possible. And we believe that there is space for different packaging systems … but we have chosen to focus on a renewability and recyclability driven innovation pathway to ensure the decarbonisation, and also the circularity, of materials,” says Pfanner.
The main limitation of bio-based polyethylene is the small number of producers
The recyclability point is an important one. If recyclability is the priority, paper and cardboard is where it’s at. Across the EU-27, the recycling rate for these materials sat at nearly 84% in 2018, the highest of all packaging materials. The rate for plastic packaging was 41.5% the same year. But when fossil-based plastics are swapped for the plant-based variety – bioplastics made from sugarcane, for example (see below) – recyclability, or compostability for that matter, isn’t always guaranteed.
Guy Wilmot is the founder of UK-based coffee company Bird & Wild. Sustainability is a key part of the brand’s identity – coffee beans are organic, Fairtrade, and certified bird-friendly and shade-grown by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre. Naturally, Wilmot wanted the packaging to follow in a similar eco-friendly vein. But for him, bio-based wasn’t the answer.
First, freshly roasted coffee beans release C02 and other gasses, thus packaging needs to allow for off-gassing. “It has to have a one-way valve otherwise these bags would explode,” explains Wilmot. Finding such a particular type of valve of the bioplastic variety proved challenging, and Wilmot was unconvinced that even if he could find a suitable replacement, the packaging would not end up in landfill like most other flexible plastics. Plant-based packaging labelled compostable or biodegradable is, contrary to popular belief, not usually accepted by local councils in recycling or food and garden waste bins – at least in the UK, where the majority of Wilmot’s customers are.
Wilmot has opted instead for packaging made of one material: low-density polyethylene. Because the bag, label and valve are all made from the same type of plastic, recycling Wilmot’s bags should be, in theory, much less problematic than most other coffee packaging, which is multi-layered. Indeed, a mono-material approach is recommended by CEFLEX, the European consortium that advocates for a circular economy for flexible packaging. Unfortunately, even if Wilmot’s packaging is made from a mono-material that is technically recyclable, it won’t necessarily be collected for recycling. A recent report by waste management firm Suez found that fewer than 20% of UK councils collect any type of flexible plastics. Encouragingly, however, it also found that kerbside collection of such packaging could be possible by 2023.
According to packaging producer Amcor, bio-based polyethylene (PE) is recyclable alongside conventional PE, (that is, if it’s actually collected) but it does acknowledge that there are challenges in sourcing it. “The main limitation when it comes to bio-based polyethylene is the small number of producers today, which has an impact on economics and flexibility of sourcing versus conventional PE,” said a spokesperson. Wilmot’s two years of investigation into the matter is a case in point. He feels his non-bio-based packaging will have the best chance of being collected and recycled, at least in time. “Build it and they will come,” he says.
Bio-based solutions might be good. However, we have to evaluate the environmental impacts of all the alternatives
In the quest to produce the most sustainable packaging, it starts to feel a bit like going down a rabbit-hole. It may be bio-based, renewable and carbon-neutral but is it recyclable? It may be recyclable and functional, but is it renewable and bio-based? Are agricultural waste by-products, for use in place of virgin wood, economically viable and available? Is the best solution to reduce or eliminate packaging altogether?
Sitra's Pajunen sums up an incredibly complex issue simply: “Bio-based solutions might be good. However, before any decisions are made, we have to evaluate and compare the environmental impacts of all the alternatives.”
Can bioplastics from sugarcane hit the sustainability sweet spot?
Bioplastics hold a $9bn share within the $1.2tn global plastics market, a relatively small sliver. Nevertheless, as pressure mounts on companies to move away from fossil-based plastics, the demand for substitutes is rising. Recent analysis from industry trade body, European Bioplastics, predicted that the production capacity of bioplastics would grow 36% by 2025. Holding nearly half of the global bio-based plastics market by volume, the packaging industry is a key driver of this growth.
While some are engineered from micro-organisms, some bioplastics are derived from crops such as sugarcane and corn. According to certification body Bonsucro, approximately 13% of all bioplastics come from sugarcane. The nonprofit, which “exists to promote sustainable sugarcane production, processing and trade around the world”, is compliant with the ISEAL Alliance’s Code of Good Practice, and has certified 5.8% of the world’s sugarcane land.
According to membership manager Rafael Seixas, of all new membership applications in 2020, 21% were from companies in bioplastic supply chains. Tetra Pak is a particularly active member: “In the past year, 41% of all requests to use the Bonsucro-certified sustainable sugarcane logo were from Tetra Pak and its clients in 20 different countries,” he says.
A common concern among those critical of bioplastics is that a growing demand may divert land away from food production. This critique is set against the world’s growing population and its ever-increasing reliance on natural resources. However, according to Seixas only 0.016% of global arable land is used for feedstock production of sugarcane for bioplastics.
“The global volume of sugar used to produce bioplastic is tiny compared to the total global production of sugar,” he says, adding that the increase in demand has not impacted price, nor the availability of sugar for use in food products. “In fact, the introduction of bioplastics from sugarcane may help over-production and a global surplus stock of sugar,” he says.
This is supported by Paula Chin, sustainable materials specialist at WWF-UK, who says in Brazil material deemed too low quality for sugar refining is converted into ethanol, which is then used as fuel for cars or made into bioplastic.
We need to keep an eye on sugarcane, to ensure it doesn’t extend into biodiversity-rich land
“Brazil is the largest source for sugarcane-based polymer and this resource-efficient approach is a positive example of maximising all the material resulting from an existing industry’s processes,” she says. This sourcing of bio-materials from byproducts of food production isn’t reflected in all markets, however. “We need to keep an eye on the growth of sugarcane markets, particularly in Asia, to ensure it doesn’t extend into biodiversity-rich land.”
Nevertheless, like any agricultural crop, cultivation of sugar – regardless of end-use application – can negatively impact the land. “Typically, this is by using too much fertiliser, applying hazardous pesticides, avoiding crop rotation, degrading soils and converting land from other crops or natural environments,” says Seixas. Third-party certification through Bonsucro and Germany-based ISCC can help to prevent such negative practices.
Sarah LaBrecque is a freelance writer who splits her time between Ottawa, Canada, and Hertfordshire. She writes about sustainable business and ethical living for publications such as the Guardian, Positive News, and for a range of B2B clients.
This article is part of The Ethical Corporation summer 2021 in-depth briefing on natural capital. Click on the cover to download your digital copy for free.
Main picture credit: Cineberg/Shutterstock
Sitra bioplastics bio-based packaging Tetra Pak plastic recycling Canopy FSC certification plant-based packaging Bird & Wild Ceflex bio-based polyethyene sugarcane