It was big news back in November 2013, when a group of major brand owners—The Coca-Cola Co. (Atlanta, GA), Danone (Paris), Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, MI), Nestle (Vevey, Switzerland), Nike Inc. (Beaverton, OR), P&G (Cincinnati, OH ) and Unilever (London)—banded together to form the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance. The alliance, which was launched as a ‘precompetitive, multi-stakeholder forum,’ focused on increasing awareness around the environmental and social performance of potential feedstock sources for biobased plastics. Its founders were motivated by the realization that the emerging bioeconomy represented a transformational change; a change that would impact on ecosystems and species around the world.
“They recognized that collective action was needed,” said Erin Simon, Deputy Director for Sustainability Research & Development for WWF (Washington, DC), speaking at the European Bioplastics Conference earlier this month. “They also wanted the transition from finite to renewable resources to take place in a sustainable way, and so they came to WWF for help.”
Since then, although not much has been heard from the alliance, a great deal has been achieved. For the past two years, the alliance members, together with the WWF have worked to establish criteria for sustainable biomass production systems. Their goal: to manage the shift from fossil-based to plant-based resources in the most responsible way possible, taking into consideration concerns, such as resource competition for food, land, water and energy. “What it came down to, was assessing the risks of the different feedstocks,” said Simon. “It was clear, however, that there was an opportunity in bioplastics.”
Among other things, she said, the alliance has now produced a white paper explaining its starting points and its vision for responsible bioplastics. Bioplastics and biomaterials represent a shift to a bioeconomy—an economy where goods are made from responsibly produced biomass. The alliance supports this shift, because it represents an opportunity to use renewable carbon, reduce the impacts of the dependence on fossil resources, and contribute to the reduction of CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming. Biobased products represent an opportunity for positive change, but that does not mean that they are free of environmental impacts. Biomass production can also have significant impacts on the environment, which is why producing responsibly is key to realizing its true potential.
“We first had to look upstream, to define what an optimal bioplastic feedstock would be,” explained Simon. “On the basis of the criteria we used—criteria stating, for example, that the feedstock must be legally sourced, derived from renewable biomass whose production is sustainably managed, not adversely impact food security and affordability, not result in destruction of critical ecosystems—we developed a decision-making tool about feedstock.”
As all feedstocks offer different advantages and disadvantages, the focus throughout was not on finding a perfect feedstock, but on committing to the continuous improvement of the best available option for that technology and sourcing region. In the evolving bioeconomy, a wide range of industry sectors will use biobased resources. “The idea is to determine which feedstock is most effective and to pair that with resource effective technologies, to find the most efficient solution at that scale today,” said Simon.
Bioplastics are not a significant user of land, nor are they predicted to become so in the near future. In fact, according to the latest figures from European Bioplastics in 2019 they may be expected to take up some 0.02% of the global agricultural area. Nonetheless, Simon emphasized: “Land use remains a hot button issue. And food security is especially hot. The fear of the public is that growing food crops for non-food uses will affect the food supply. What people fail to realize is that growing non-food crops for the same purpose can have the same food security risks, largely due to land use impacts.”
The impacts of land use must still be accounted for, as any industry that uses land must be held accountable for its contribution to global land use change, no matter how small. Hence, robust assessment methods are crucial to ensure that biobased plastics are sourced responsibly.
“The value of the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance in all this is that we’ve come together and speak in a “unified voice,” said Simon. “Moving to a more circular, biobased economy is a great challenge, and one that must be met in order to achieve a future where we do not demand more resources from the Earth than it can renew. Working together, it’s possible to tackle these challenges.