With so many countries and regions committing to some (often indeterminate) form of bioplastic alternative to conventional plastic food packaging, scrutiny as to actual environmental and safety performance offered by these materials has become intense. This has ironically created great uncertainty within the commercial food industry at the exact time that many producers have introduced mandates to switch from conventional plastic packaging. So how does this end?
An Aging EU Packaging Standard
The principal packaging specification for bioplastics worldwide remains the EU Packaging Standard EN 13432 Packaging: Requirements for packaging recoverable through composting and biodegradation. This 20-year old standard, in fact, applies to all forms of packaging and contains a set of assumptions and models as to how bioplastic material will be treated at end-of-life. And it is this standard that most countries point to as part of their strategy to transition away from conventional plastics.
The European experience with EN 13432 qualifying materials is, at best, mixed when applied to food packaging. One of the concerns has been that food packaging, along with waste commercial food and other organics, is increasing biodegraded through an oxygen-less anaerobic digestion process which was originally developed for agricultural waste and not suitable for all compostable plastics.
Environmental and Safety Concerns Over Bioplastics
When looking at recent tests using standard-compliance bioplastics commonly distributed in Europe in an AD system, one researcher concluded:
The assumptions [of EU 13432] in the anaerobic biodegradation test do not reflect reality.
Similar concerns have been raised with the standard’s environmental performance under the various types of oxygen-based composting. Among other issues, this has resulted in the proliferation of plastics residuals in the nutrient digestate or compost mix which is then applied to agricultural lands.
In short, the standard is not the panacea it’s held out to be, at least for food packaging.
Bioplastics as Biosecurity Champion?
In the Age of COVID, new concern is being paid (however much scientifically-based) to claims that unsterilized food packaging materials can be the carrier of pathogens. This is particularly significant where that plastic contains recycled content – which has been flagged by food safety regulators internationally as a subject for further research.
Similarly, the reuse models, such as deposit-refund schemes, reusable containers and unpackaged food items have also suffered over concerns of the prevalence of pathogens. In this climate, near term infrastructure investment in a biogas solution for bioplastics will likely surge – but only if the bioplastics design and recovery processes can be better harmonized for commercial food packaging.
Circular Economy Action Plan 2020 to Reassess Bioplastics
The European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan 2020, an updated iteration following deemed completion of the original 2015 plan, aims to address both the environmental and safety performance of sanctioned bioplastics as the EU moves further away from conventional plastics. Specifically, the plan’s environmental assessment will include a new policy framework on:
sourcing, labelling and use of bio-based plastics, based on assessing where the use of bio-based feedstock results in genuine environmental benefits, going beyond reduction in using fossil resources;
use of biodegradable or compostable plastics, based on an assessment of the applications where such use can be beneficial to the environment, and of the criteria for such applications.
In other words, the EU intends to reassess how and where the various bioplastics may support Europe’s Circular Economy and the outcomes for bioplastics, including as food packaging, are far from certain. This process will, no doubt, have ripple effects in other regions of the world.
With the current uncertainty around the use of bioplastics in commercial food packaging, industry will want to focus its attention on engaging with regulators domestically, regionally and internationally in order to best ensure that the renewal process for bioplastics will work, specifically, for commercial food stakeholders.