Meesters is right to warn brand owners that they need to be careful when making claims about biobased packaging, such as saying that packaging made from plants is carbon neutral. It is not. Plants are, in fact, great storehouses of CO2, and when they are harvested and processed, that CO2 is released into the atmosphere. At the end of the day, biobased packaging from plants is not much different from biobased packaging from petroleum, since plant and animal matter make up petroleum. Perhaps the “difference” the test consumers noticed in the plant-derived packaging came from being told that the packaging was made from plants.
The word biobased is often thrown around as something that provides greater environmental benefits than plastic. In reality, both types of plastic are biobased from plants. Does the fossil petroleum release less CO2 into the atmosphere than plants when they are harvested, processed and turned into plastic?
In their test of consumer perceptions, researchers presented traditional, biobased and intermediate varieties of five packaged products to German and French consumers. Of the three varieties, consumers indicated that they were most likely to purchase the fully biobased product, according to the Wageningen University report. From the water bottle to goat cheese in plastic packaging, however, the varieties were not evaluated significantly differently from each other. Awareness of the packaging properties and the resulting positive evaluation by consumers play an important role in the intention to buy products in biobased packaging. According to Wageningen scientist Machiel Reinders, a belief in the brand’s sincere intentions is also relevant.
It should be noted that biobased plastics are not the only sustainable option for the vast majority of food products. According to guidance on the use of recycled plastics in food packaging published by FDA, it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure that the recycled plastics used to make food-contact articles have the “same standard of suitable purity for its intended use and will meet all existing specifications as virgin material.”
The recycling process for plastics that will be used in food-contact applications must remove all contaminants to maximum acceptable levels per testing protocols outlined in FDA regulations and show that “the recycled package will not introduce contaminants into the diet at unacceptable levels.”
Brand owners and consumers must be given the scientific facts about plastics and the biobased nature of all plastics, whether they are made from plants growing freshly upon the earth or petroleum created by ancient plants over millions of years. Biobased is biobased.
Brand owners and consumers also must understand that the plastics industry follows strict regulatory guidelines when recycling plastics for food packaging. The guidelines help ensure that recycled plastics are safe from contamination and have the same properties for use as virgin resin.
Consumers need the truth about plastics. Believe me, they can handle the truth!