An interview with bioplastics authority Jeff Timm
Food & Beverage Packaging: What exactly is a bioplastic?
Jeff Timm: There are a number of definitions floating around but I believe the
Society of the Plastic Industry (SPI) definition is the one we should all
embrace. It states a bioplastic is a plastic that is biodegradable, has
bio-based content, or both. The trouble with this definition is that it
incorporates two other words–biodegradability and bio-based–that also require
definitions. This is why a bioplastic definition is so confusing. A
biodegradable plastic is one that undergoes a breakdown of organic material in
the presence of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi or algae) usually in a
controlled heat and moisture environment. Biodegradation is not thermal, UV or
hydro degradation. Bio-based content is the fraction of the carbon content
which is “new” carbon content made up of biological materials or agricultural
resources versus fossil-derived “old” carbon content. Bio-based content is
measured following the procedures set by ASTM D6866. Water soluble
plastics like polyvinyl alcohol (PVOH) are not bioplastics.
F&BP: You’ve noted that there’s been a recent shift
in what a bioplastic is . . . can you comment further on that?
Timm: The shift is that there are more product offerings falling into the
second part of the bioplastic definition: bio-based rather than biodegradable.
For example, when bioplastics were first introduced to the marketplace they
were almost exclusively biodegradable polymers derived from renewable resources
like corn. More recent developments have been bioplastics derived from
bio-based, renewable building blocks that are not biodegradable. An
example is a drop-in polyethylene polymerized from ethylene that is derived
from renewable sugarcane, not petrochemical sources. This shift has added to
the marketplace and consumer confusion in understanding what a bioplastic is. A
simple way to look at a bioplastic is to separate how it is created vs. its
end-of-life outcome. The confusion develops when we combine the creation
and disposal in the same definition. Biodegradation and recycling are both
end-of- life outcomes. Words like bio-sourced, bio-based and renewable are from
the front-end creation side.
F&BP: What are the major misconceptions about bioplastics?
Timm: The biggest misconception is that all bioplastics biodegrade or compost.
Bio-based PE derived from renewable bio-based building blocks does not compost.
Surveys indicate most consumers associate “doing the right thing” with
recyclability, not reducing GHG or using renewable feedstock in the manufacture
of plastics. Most of the time recycling has nothing to do with whether a plastic
is bio- or petrochemical-derived. In some cases bioplastics can cause harm to
traditional plastic recycling streams like PET.
F&BP: What are the major packaging drivers in bioplastic
development and use?
Timm: The major drivers in bioplastic packaging are incorporated in or are a
part of a company’s total sustainability program, which is part of the total
brand image. The basic role of a package also plays into bioplastic usage.
Features like single-use, attractive end-of-life options, environmental
footprint and specific functionality lend themselves to the attributes that
bioplastics bring to packaging.
F&BP: What are the realities of this market?
Timm: There are a number of major market realities:
a. First, there’s tremendous confusion surrounding materials, technology and
marketing claims. The consumer clearly wants sustainable products. However,
when faced with real-world decisions on how to achieve that goal there are
confusing marketplace signals. Some packaging companies blatantly mislead
consumers with false claims while other companies have tried using bioplastics
only to be disappointed by their fitness in use or processing difficulties.
Additionally, performance expectations have not been met in all cases,
especially when it comes to compostability. Consumer expectations and actual
performance realities have not aligned, creating disappointment.
b. There is inadequate end-of-life (EOL) consumer understanding and expectations
around disposal. Many consumers believe biodegradation is simply throwing a
bottle out the car window and having it degrade in a relatively short period of
time. This is far from reality. The misunderstanding around landfills also
leads to confusion. Plastics, including bioplastics, for the most part do not
degrade in landfills. A better matching of bioplastics degradation properties
and consumer expectations is needed.
c. End-of-life disposal programs need to be developed on a national level. The
hodgepodge of local, city and state regulations around recycling and plastic
usage and disposal only adds to the confusion. For example, incineration should
be part of the public disposal debate, but it rarely is in the U.S.
d. The whole public understanding of green-house-gas (GHG), carbon footprint,
“new” carbon vs. “old” carbon layered on top of a discussion on sustainability
and the addition of bioplastic applications has been too great an educational
burden for the consumer. A simple example: Do the numbers inside the recycle
chasing arrows symbol appearing on most plastic packaging identify the
type of plastic or that it is recyclable or both? We need to have a
collective common understanding in order to make informed decisions.
F&BP: What are some of the reasons there seems to be
so much confusion in this market and to what degree are packagers responsible?
Timm: The reason confusion abounds is because there are no common acceptable
standards or definitions for bioplastic usage, disposal and claims. The whole
plastic industry and the subset of the packaging industry is partly responsible
for this confusion. Although the term “sustainable packaging” has been used in
the marketplace since early this decade, most people in the industry today
still cannot define what sustainable packaging is according to the Sustainable
Packaging Coalition (SPC) definition.
Also, conflicting claims about end-of-life scenarios are prevalent.
Examples: “What actually goes on inside a landfill? Do products really
degrade in a landfill or are they simply entombed?” However there is a
light at the end of the tunnel. The Consumer Goods Forum-Global Packaging
Project (GPP), Federal Trade Commission-Green Guides, ASTM, UL, USDA and other
groups are slowly setting standards to bring order to the chaos. The collective
goal taken from the introduction of the GPP Report is to bring “common
definitions and principles, agreed metrics and indicators and guidance on
usage.” In my estimation, this has taken far too long. An example of this
is why are municipalities all over this country trying to regulate and ban the
use of plastic packaging? Why hasn’t the plastic industry stepped up and
presented the value proposition for plastics? They saw this coming years ago.
F&BP: Other than requiring regulatory approval for food contact,
are there any differences in bioplastics selected for applications in food and
beverages than for other end-use markets?
Timm: The biggest requirement for food packaging is keeping the ingredients
safe from outside contaminates and spoilage. To do this, barrier properties are
probably the most significant requirement of the food and beverage
package. Additional requirements are printability, machinability, and a
good balance of physical properties, e.g. toughness and puncture-resistance.
The major requirements for many nonfood and beverage durable applications are
heat resistance and impact resistance. These are areas where many biodegradable
bioplastics suffer, though there are polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) and additive
packages employed that increase temperature and impact limits. Drop-in
bioplastics discussed earlier would have the same physical properties as their
petro counterparts. Finally, injection molding is the least used thermoplastic
converting process for the packaging industry compared to extruded and blown
film and extruded and cast sheet for thermoforming. As a result of these
processing differences, specifications like green strength, draw down, lower
melt indexes, etc. are required for packaging applications and may not be
necessary for injection molded durable applications. Additionally
attributes like clarity and printability (surface features) could be different.
F&BP: What do you see as the biggest opportunities
for bioplastics within the food and beverage market? And where do you see
this market going?
Timm: The biggest opportunity that has only emerged over the last 18 months is
the bio-based PET beverage bottle. Both Coke Cola and Pepsi have different
bio-based bottle technologies to replace their current PET bottles. These two
companies have clearly indicated their marketing plan is to embrace
recyclability rather than biodegradability as their disposal method of choice.
This is a huge shift away from most early packaging applications that were
focused on biodegradability as the end-of-life outcome. If successful, the
impact of this shift will create huge market opportunities for bioplastic
drop-ins as replacements for petroleum-based materials. The same shift is also
occurring with commercially available bio-based polyethylene (PE).
Technology is also commercial or near commercial for bio-based nylon,
polypropylene, polystyrene, acrylic and many other traditional plastics used in
the packaging industry. This does not signal the death of biodegradable
bioplastics. It is just the dawning of the next stage of market development
after the early stage market confusion and scramble to match food and beverage
applications requirements with the bioplastic properties and attributes. There
will always be opportunity for all bioplastic families of products. Just like
in the traditional petro-plastic industry, one product does not fulfill all
Jeff Timm has spent more than 35 years in the plastics
industry with Fortune 100 companies in positions ranging from sales and
marketing research to leadership roles in product and business management and
business development. The last seven years have been as Managing Principal for
Timm Consulting, Franksville, WI, a plastics business and market development
consultancy focusing on bioplastics and adhesives. Timm can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org www.linkedin.com/in/jefftimm