In this era of sustainability, every U.S. company that utilizes
petroleum-based plastic packaging should take a position on bioplastic
packaging. With environmentalists vilifying the former and promoting
the latter, each company should determine its own position through a
systematic analysis, that, whatever its length and detail, considers
What are consumers' attitudes toward bioplastics, and how do those
attitudes influence consumer behavior? Don’t assume attitudes are
positive just because most consumers have heard of global warming, the
Green Movement, and sustainability. Far fewer have heard of
bioplastics, and some who have, might be misinformed. Nor should it be
assumed is that positive attitudes translate to consumer loyalty; for,
consumers can acknowledge eco-responsibility, yet, not purchase, if it
requires unacceptable sacrifice. Don’t inadvertently devise research
methodologies that permit respondents to conceal their dualism.
What aspects might confuse the consumer? Start with the most
fundamental: definitions. Bioplastics are polymers made from renewable
sources; straightforward enough, but the term doesn’t convey its
relationship to other terms, such as biodegradable and compostable.
Biodegradable means the material breaks down by the actions of
microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi. Compostable means the
material breaks down through a controlled process that combines heat,
moisture, and oxygen.
Further complicating matters is the element of time. Does it matter
that different biodegradable plastics decompose at different rates as
long as several years, in a landfill, for example? Compostables will
decompose at different rates, also, depending on what’s added to the
composting mix. Then there’s the element of byproducts. Unless a
bioplastic is comprised wholly of natural ingredients, it won’t
decompose simply to carbon dioxide and water, but to inorganic
compounds and biomass as well.
Consumers can be confused about the source of a bioplastic, left to
wonder whether there are meaningful differences among those derived
from corn vs. potatoes vs. sugar cane, etc.
The preceding and other sources of confusion can have their effects
multiplied by marketing claims that rely on misleading comparisons or
unfounded statements. Never forget that some people remain proactively
vigilant against "greenwashing."Certification
Bioplastics need to be identifiable by the consumer, otherwise what’s
the point? Competitive realities dictate it; furthermore, the concept
of sustainability is based on environmental stewardship and
profitability. A certification logo is the answer. The certifying
organization should operate on transparent, objective criteria, to earn
the consumer’s confidence and reliance. That’s more likely when the
organization’s membership is comprised of major stakeholders, i.e.
suppliers, packagers, academia, and government. An example of a
organization that can serve as a model is the Biodegradable Products
Institute, which certifies for compostability, as defined by ASTM D6400
The fewer the certifying organizations, the better, so as to minimize
“certification shopping,” by companies. A different type of
proliferation owes to other certification logos---unrelated to
packaging---that tout sustainability and are appearing on packages with
increasing frequency. Carbon offsets are one example. Packages tattooed
with logos are not only inartistic but confusing.
Capacity and infrastructure
Bioplastics have been commercial for more than 15 years, during which
time they have demonstrated their potential, but have not had the
capacity nor infrastructure necessary to fulfill it. Granted, there are
some recent examples of companies converting to bioplastics, none more
high-profile than Wal-Mart’s use of polylactic acid (PLA) containers
for certain produce; however, petroleum-based plastic packaging retains
its overall market dominance.
In order for the U.S supply industry for bioplastics to mount a
meaningful challenge, capacity has to increase by millions of tons of
resin, necessitating, of course, the building of new facilities. Like
all such investments, its ability to attract capital will be in
proportion to the projected returns.
So, what conditions can accelerate increased capacity? One is that
bioplastic resins be compatible with standard converting processes,
such as extrusion, blow molding, thermoforming, etc., used to
manufacture film, sheet, and containers, thereby eliminating the
expense of new equipment or equipment modification.
Another needed condition is that commercial composting capacity
increases in accordance, if compostables are to compete on the basis of
reducing the need for landfills. Incidentally, backyard composting will
remain the province of a small minority of eco-committed households.
In the United States, the major source of bioplastics is corn; however,
its renewability doesn’t guarantee its availability. While the present
amount of land under cultivation can supply a fledgling bioplastics
industry, the future portends otherwise. The uncertainty of supply will
not automatically be corrected by more acreage.
Bioplastics face competition from another sustainable alternative,
namely ethanol, and since that biofuel constitutes only 3% (according
to Federal statistics) of what’s powering the nation’s automobiles, its
growth is likely to consume the greater portion of the non-food usage
of corn. Farmers have been called "economists in straw hats": What they
plant and to whom they sell are motivated by profit. Economists are
familiar with inelastic demand, a concept that applies to U.S.
consumption of automotive fuel, but, alas, not to packaging. Quite the
contrary, packaging is mostly regarded as an expense, constantly under
Some resin manufacturers will respond to the availability challenge
through vertical integration, owning and operating agribusinesses that
grow the corn. The same strategy can be pursued by major consumer
packaged goods companies that choose to source and manufacture their
Not to be overlooked is the competition for bioplastics from
manufactured products other than packaging, among them, fabrics,
clothing, furniture, plates, and eating utensils.
Genetically altered strains of corn that grow faster and are more
resistant to draught and disease could increase overall supply. A
possible impediment, however, is consumer attitudes. What assurances
would be needed that such corn will not be part of the supply for
humans and animals? Many consumers have displayed a skittishness over
radiated, hormone-injected, and in general, genetically engineered
edibles, which some have dubbed "Frankenfoods."Costs
The price premium of bioplastics has been a competitive disadvantage,
but one whose degree is sure to narrow, due to high oil prices on one
hand, and the coming economies-of-scale for bioplastics, on the other.
Meanwhile, the strategy of the bioplastics industry is to achieve scale
through large, national accounts. Smaller accounts willing to be
early-adopters, also can negotiate competitive prices, because
suppliers are betting on future business growth.
Sustainability has thrust forward the need to account for costs from
new perspectives. Whether the discussion is presented as life-cycle,
cradle-to-grave, or cradle-to-cradle, companies need a broader
perspective than just materials-labor-overhead. Sustainability
recognizes that the planet pays costs. Performance
The specific application dictates the performance requirements of a
plastic packaging material; nonetheless, the long list of possibilities
are divided between functionality and aesthetics. PLA has acquired its
front-runner position among bioplastics because, among other things, it
can be processed into film and sheet; blown into bottles; and
thermoformed into containers---all with acceptable performance.
Still, petroleum-based plastics are the most diversified and versatile
of packaging materials, due to formulations that use various additives.
As bioplastics seek to broaden their applications, a key consideration
is the degree to which they can use additives and still retain their
designation as green alternatives. Inorganic additives will remain
after the rest of the bioplastic has degraded. Then again,
sustainability recognizes trade-offs in pursuit of an improved net
It’s possible for a bioplastic to perform head-on with a
petroleum-based material well enough to cause new challenges as a
result. A case in point is PLA bottles, said to have the look and feel
of PET. The more the consumer can’t distinguish by appearance the PLA
bottle, the more likely it might end up in the PET recycle stream,
wherein it’s a contaminant. A related challenge is whether enough
consumers are willing to accept yet another task of separating
Bioplastics will have to perform in an era wherein innovation and smart
packaging are more than buzzwords and, therefore, must seek not only
equality with petroleum-based plastics, but also where possible,
superiority. The food industry, in particular, offers opportunities.
There’s a sizable niche awaiting materials that contain no components
that migrate into the food, even when microwaved. What are the range of
opportunities for materials that are, themselves, edible and used as
wraps, coatings, etc.? Another area is interactive packaging that
delays spoilage, drying, and rancidity. Government
It’s yet to be known whether the federal government will spur the
growth of bioplastics through legislation, or whether it’s even
inclined to do so. That notwithstanding, it behooves the industry to
lobby its case. Investment incentives are more plausible than ever at a
time when there is growing willingness to punish those companies having
a heavy carbon footprint (carbon taxes, for example) and reward those
with a lighter one. Global
Bioplastics pose complications to global marketing because of the
different levels to which they are embraced across continents, or for
that matter, from country to country. For the U.S. exporter facing a
varying set of governmental/regulatory requirements, the best strategy
might be to package according to the most stringent among them. The
strategy also can be employed if the U.S. company manufactures overseas
and distributes in more than one country. Petroleum-based plastics
What about the response from petroleum-based plastics? The industry is
sure to step up its public relations campaign emphasizing increased
recycling, especially in the wake of attacks on water bottles and
shopping bags. With recycling being one of the pillars of
sustainability, the industry will aggressively cite its long
commitment, as evidenced by the number-inside-the-triangle symbol.
The industry isn’t relying solely on recycling, but is venturing into
ways to claim degradability, through various additives and modifiers.
There also will come families of hybrids—blends of petroleum-based
plastics and bioplastics---much like blends of ethanol and gasoline.
But there will be no complete or permanent truce between petro-based
and bio-based materials. Attacks and counterattacks, claims and
counterclaims, will crisscross the battlefield.
In conclusion, the analysis of bioplastics is multifaceted, with some
facets having scant data available. Yet, it must be undertaken. The
question of whether bioplastics have a future in packaging has been
answered in the affirmative by this era of sustainability. It’s up to
the individual company to analyze that future and to subsequently map a
Before becoming a packaging consultant, Sterling Anthony worked for
Fortune 500 food, healthcare, and automotive companies, and has taught
packaging at the university level. He welcomes your comments by phone,
313/531-1875 or by e-mail, [email protected]
. His Web site