#CARBONCLASH / 11 Dec 2018
Bio-packaging: Beyond plastics
Approximately 330 Mt of fossil-based plastics is produced and consumed every year, which is about 200 times more than 60 years ago, when Pöyry was founded. In Europe, 40% of plastic is used in packaging and most of that plastic is used only once. Up to 40% of plastics used in packaging end up in landfill and some 30% leak in to the environment. This has resulted in 4 billion tonnes of plastic lying around, of which 150 Mt is in the oceans. What can we do?
The single largest end use for plastics is polyethylene used in packaging, with around 42 Mt used every year. If we substituted all that with paper or other bio-based products, we would avoid up to 250 Mt of CO2 emissions annually. Today, only 14% of plastics are collected for recycling, and another 14% are incinerated. Incineration does produce energy, but the material itself is lost and cannot be utilised further within the value chain. In conclusion, 95% of the value of plastic that we produce is wasted within the system.
On November 14, Saara Söderberg moderated a debate between two Finnish bio-packaging start-ups Paptic and Sulapac in Pöyry’s Carbon Clash event in Helsinki, Finland. Suvi Haimi from Sulapac and Tuomas Mustonen from Paptic presented their solutions for substituting plastic in packaging with bio-based products.
How can start-ups drive change for sustainable packaging?
Packaging is needed for two main purposes: for protection and containment of the product, and to provide information about it. Many items need some sort of packaging, but are they packaged in a sustainable manner? Package design and material efficiency are key factors in sustainable packaging. Therefore, in our Carbon Clash event, we asked Suvi and Tuomas to pick one item from an ordinary supermarket shopping basket and redesign its package into a more sustainable manner.
Suvi chose to redesign packaging for children’s plasticine - Play-Doh. Around 40% of the weight of the Play-Doh product is currently packaging, and all of it is not necessary. Suvi suggested removing the outer, secondary packaging, as only the primary package is needed from the product perspective. She would then replace the plastic used in the primary package with a sustainable, biodegradable choice.
‘The only functionality the Play-Doh package really needs is to protect the content, i.e. the plasticine from drying, which practically means using any material with sufficient oxygen barrier properties in the primary packaging. Then we just need to find the right, biodegradeable and microplastic-free alternative’, Suvi explained.
Tuomas wanted to redesign a package of dates. Four different materials have been used in the current packaging, which complicates recycling for consumer. In addition, the colored plastic used in the tray material is not the easiest plastic from a recycling point of view. Therefore, Tuomas would replace the plastic with a bio-based, biodegradable option, such as paperboard tray.
‘This is a good example of poor packaging. Dates preserve quite well, they require less of an oxygen barrier, for example. They could actually be packed in a reusable bag’, Tuomas said.
We need the forerunners
New innovations, like the ones Paptic and Sulapac have developed, are essential for us to cure the world’s plastics addiction. Even though sustainable materials may be even cheaper than fossil-based plastics, transformation of the production lines and other processes require investments. Established industry players need new, open-minded solutions and scalable options to work as drivers for change. The transformation costs money, yet ignoring the plastic challenge costs even more.
‘We need the forerunners and those who make bold decisions. It is both big companies like Adidas or Lego who are driving the change, but also start-ups and consumers, through their choices. We should also not only look at the material costs, but also focus on the value that investments in sustainability create for the brand’, Tuomas sums up.
Each player counts
There is no single instance that can tackle the global plastic challenge. All parts of the supply chain; policymakers, raw material producers, industry players and retailers; are responsible for moving things in the right direction, not to mention the importance of our personal choices as consumers.
In Pöyry’s consumer survey in September 2018, we found out that Finnish women seem to be ready to make environmentally friendly lifestyle changes more often than men. In addition, the people who are worried about CO2 emissions, and the people who believe in individual’s chances to make a difference, seem to be more willing to make sustainable changes in their lives.
The Pöyry Carbon Clash audience, consisting of top industry leaders and experts, was also asked about their views and personal commitments on solving the plastics challenge. In the first poll, they saw ‘Plastic in the oceans’ and ‘Waste collection and management’ as the two most significant challenges with packaging issues.
All of these challenges may be solved by either more efficient recycling, increased use of bio-based materials, as well as improved material efficiency throughout the choices in the value chain. Improving the recycling process would result in greater proportion of plastic being used more than once, capturing the value and reducing the amount of plastic ending up in nature and in the food chain. Increasing the use of bio-based materials in packaging would decrease the CO2 footprint, and increasing the material efficiency, including reducing the use of plastic, would decrease the overall plastic material that is being produced.
In the second poll, the audience was asked which choices they already make in their personal lives. It is not a surprise that many recycle paper and board, and delightfully many also recycle plastics, given that it is not always that simple in many countries. It has also been very convincing to see how much the use of plastic bags has decreased over the last couple of years.
The size of the challenge is well understood
Overall, the poll results indicate that people do realise the scale of the plastic challenge, and that a variety of actions are needed.
‘Innovating and introducing new solutions naturally cost money, and therefore customers who value ecological choices have a great impact. They are investing into a more sustainable future. With all the choices we make, we can either support new innovations, or go with the cheapest solutions. But in the long run, the winners will be the brands who invest in sustainability now’, Suvi predicted.
Single use/throwaway culture is a big part of the problem, and often people don’t even realise that most of the packaging is only used once. I would like to challenge everyone to not base their consumption choices on short-term convenience, rather on the future. Keeping the sustainable future in mind, we are thinking of convenience of our children.
What is what?
It is essential to understand what a truly responsible choice is, and therefore, the terminology has to be clear and unified.
The term ‘bio-based product’ refers to products wholly or partly derived from biomass, such as plants, trees or animals. The biomass may have undergone physical, chemical or biological treatment. CEN published a standard for terms in the field of bio-based products, EN 16575 in August 2014.
The definition of biodegradable is that ‘a material is capable of undergoing biological anaerobic or aerobic degradation leading to the production of CO2, H2O, methane, biomass, and mineral salts, depending on the original material and environmental conditions of the process. Micro-organisms present in the environment and fed mostly by organic waste play an important role in biodegradation.’ In actuality biodegradable is a loose term, as everything is biodegradable given time. Thus, it is important to specify the environment where biodegradation is intended to take place.
Composting is the process of breaking down organic waste by microbial digestion to create compost. To go through a composting process, organic waste requires the right level of heat, water, and oxygen. Microbes transform the organic materials into compost. In order to claim that a product is fully compostable, the product has to meet all the requirements in the European Norm EN 13432 and/or the US Standard ASTM D6400. Both specifications require that biodegradable/compostable products completely decompose in a composting setting in a specific time frame, leaving no harmful residues behind.
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic debris in the environment resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste. Microplastics may be any kind of plastic fragment that is less than five millimeters in length according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Microplastics enter natural ecosystems from a variety of sources, including, but not limited to, cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes.
Microplastics are classified in two categories. Primary microplastics are any plastic fragments or particles that are already 5.0mm or less in size before entering the environment. These include microfibers from clothing, microbeads, and plastic. Secondary microplastics are formed in degradation of larger plastic products once they enter the environment through natural wear and tear processes. Sources of secondary microplastics include for example water and soda bottles, fishing nets, and plastic bags. Both types of microplastics are recognised to persist in the environment particularly in aquatic ecosystems.
Did you know that Pöyry experts are actively contributing to the next 60 years by supporting companies to start substituting plastics with bio-based alternatives? Founded in 1958 and with its deep roots in the forest industry, Pöyry’s experts have grown up as part of ‘Generation Plastic’. This year, we are celebrating Pöyry’s 60th anniversary. At Pöyry, we are proud to be playing our part in curing the plastic addiction and improving society for the future and generations to come. We are #ProudToBePoyry.