Needed: A Balanced Discourse on Bio-Based Products and Packaging

We need more innovative solutions to combat the range of waste management and related environmental issues we face today. Consumers, business owners, and lawmakers around the globe are seeking creative solutions to address these complex and compounding challenges. This has driven interest in the unique potential of bio-based products and packaging materials to create a more sustainable future for our oceans, our wildlife, and our planet.

In addition to their unparalleled renewability profile, bio-based products and packaging materials represent a growing economic market and a potential driver of job growth in the United States. That’s why the Plant Based Products Council (PBPC) is bringing government, non-profit, and corporate entities together: to advance the adoption of sustainable, bio-based solutions that address our most pressing environmental problems, while also fostering the economy of the future.

As with any emerging market or technology, there is great potential for the kind of misunderstanding that can become enduring myths, whether fueled by confusion, misplaced enthusiasm, or distortion from agenda-driven campaigns seizing on perceived challenges or trade-offs in an effort to delay or defeat the transition toward a new technology. This sort of defeatist thinking has allowed for misconceptions and misleading narratives to take hold and threaten to cloud perceptions of the decidedly bright and sustainable future presented by renewable, bio-based materials.

The PBPC and our members recognize that companies and organizations must mobilize to innovate and develop alternatives to traditional chemicals and plastics so that we may create a sustainable future based on renewable goods that improve global resource efficiency.

Important Facts about Bio-Based Materials:  

Bio-based materials should not be treated as a monolith given the diversity of plant-based materials that can be used to make them. Our members manufacture products made from materials such as algae, bamboo, palm leaf, rice husk, wood, or hemp. The majority of bioplastics, for instance, are derived from either the sugars or starches of a plethora of agricultural crops including: corn, sugarcane, sugar beet, potatoes, and wheat. There are also bio-based polyethylene (PE) products which are molecularly identical to petroleum-based PE, but come from renewable plant-based sources.

We represent a wide variety of companies and will use this platform to address any misconceptions surrounding plant-based and bio-based materials. However, the current debate about the use of plastics has led to a particular focus on bioplastics as an alternative. Unfortunately, this discussion has perpetuated many myths and misleading claims about bioplastics that we feel deserve particular attention, including:

  • When assessing the environmental and carbon impacts of bioplastic products, calculations must not discount the CO2 removed from the atmosphere by the plants that are used in their production. Ignoring this fact when modeling carbon cycles is scientifically inaccurate and distorts the environmental benefits, especially compared with petroleum-based plastics.
  • Many types of bioplastics are either compostable or biodegradable. The uninformed often conflate these terms, but they are not interchangeable and have important distinctions:
    • Compostable bioplastics can be broken down using best practices in an industrial or municipal setting by the same microorganisms that break down other plant and food stuffs. In a biological process similar to the composting you may have done for your garden, microbes work to consume the organic compounds in bioplastics right down to the molecular level.
    • Biodegradable bioplastics are broken down over time by natural forces. They do not need the same enhanced environmental conditions such as increased levels of oxygen and an intentionally balanced nutrient profile that are provided by a municipal composting facility to be broken down.
  • Bioplastics production will not have a significant impact on land use. A recent publication from European Bioplastics, informed by FAO stats, the nova-Institute, and the Institute for Bioplastics and Biocomposites, estimated that the 2017 total land use for bioplastics production is only 0.016% of global agricultural land, and the estimated land use for 2022 under current trends would be approximately 0.021% of global agricultural land.
  • Bioplastics production will not have a significant impact on agricultural resources used to grow food. A report cited by both the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Wildlife Foundation’s Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance argues that there are nuanced policy considerations to how land is used, but that the use of bio-based materials should be accepted.
  • Bioplastics are already a burgeoning industry that promises to become an economic powerhouse in the coming decades.

Given the prominence of misconceptions and misleading claims which run counter to these principles, we intend to challenge inaccurate news coverage and mischaracterizations about bio-based products and materials. We’re committed to an approach that focuses on solutions, and we seek to promote a balanced, science-driven discussion moving forward.