Last week in Food Contact Surfaces we peeled back some layers to uncover new developments in the state of food packaging innovation. As the article’s supporting graphic implied, the 21st century options for transporting our personal supplies of water, fruit, or the occasional emergency martini are myriad and, at times, head-scratching. From the ‘simple’ use of alginate to the technologically-advanced dual wrapper of the WikiCell system, we have seemingly never had more options for bio-friendly, food-grade containment.
But, we can almost hear you exclaim, how widespread is this concern with environmental issues relative to food packaging? Is it really a question that has relevance to us all? Or can we delegate that worry to the well-heeled, granola-munching cadre of consumers who stereotypically shop at high-end, ‘boutique’ organic groceries? Not really. In fact given that Allied Market Research predicts that the market for global green packaging will reach $207,543 million by 2022, the subject is definitely not one of niche concern.(1) It is one for big business, very big business.
As far back as 2011 a host of multinational corporations, including the Dow Chemical Company, Henkel AG & KGaA, and Mitsubishi Corporation, pooled their collective resources to launch ‘Together for Sustainability,’ (TfS) an initiative that promoted sustainable development by providing a pathway to the market. The program was structured around the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and the Responsible Car Global Charter with the aim of creating standardized protocols that allowed suppliers to assess and improve their own sourcing practices with an eye to sustainability and environmental awareness. In other words, to create a framework through which food packaging materials’ suppliers could create better products that were more earth-friendly. And the kinds of edible packaging that we outlined in last week’s article are just the beginning. Join us as we dive headlong into the world of biodegradables, bioplastics, and biocompostables…
Before we get started, let’s have a show of hands for how many readers know the difference between these three concepts? Hmmm, we’re not seeing a waving ocean of hands out there but that’s ok because, until we looked closer, we weren’t sure about the difference either. In essence, an object manufactured from a bioplastic source may or may not be biodegradable or compostable. A compostable item may not be classed as a bioplastic, but it is certainly biodegradable. And so on. And, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), these families of products are analyzed and categorized on an item-by-item basis, with the exact composition of each article being assessed before being denoted as a bioplastic. Sounds confusing? It is.
According to the USDA, to qualify as a bioplastic an item must contain a minimum of 50% ‘biobased content,’ as defined by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Biobased content is any ‘organic material in which carbon is derived from a renewable resource via biological processes. Biobased materials include all plant and animal mass derived from CO2 recently fixed via photosynthesis, per definition of a renewable resource.’(2) So biobased and biodegradable are not the same exact thing. Composed of organic material, ‘some biobased products can biodegrade in municipal or commercial composting facilities, home composting, and aquatic and roadside environments, others will only biodegrade in very specific environments and some will not biodegrade at all.’(3)
So where does biodegradability fit into the puzzle? Per the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), for a product to be thus designated, under specific conditions it must allow ‘microbes in the environment [to] break down the material and use it as a food source.’(4). In other words, an item made of biodegradable plastic must be capable of disintegrating rapidly during composting, must not compromise the usefulness of the matrix into which it decomposes, cannot leave large residues of regulated metals, and should be capable of being mineralized by microorganisms.
This is quite a tall order. But as we search for new ways of reducing our dependence on non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels – and specifically petroleum-based products – compostables, biodegradables, and bioplastics are increasingly gaining traction. Widely adopted in the healthcare industry, they’re also prevalent in pharmaceutical applications as Eswara Prasad, Team Lead, Chemicals & Materials at Allied Market Research, notes: ‘Bioplastic is a new ecological alternative to oil-based polymers with promising growth in pharmaceutical sectors.’(5) And the reason for their growing popularity is the fact that these non-petroleum products help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cut down on our national reliance on fossil fuels, and can also contribute to the creation of a renewable energy source. How? We’re glad you asked.
When bioplastic materials break down under thermophilic – or heat-loving – conditions they can release methane that, if untapped, is actually up to twenty times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide. But when the gas is captured – for instance at landfill facilities which are, after all, where most of our compostable and organic materials end their lives – the anaerobic digestion of the products by microbes produces a mix of gases which the industry terms ‘biogas.’ To prevent its escape into the atmosphere, the biogas is captured by a network of pipes within the facility that funnel it through a turbine or internal combustion engine. The electricity generated in this process can be used onsite or fed back into the utility grid.(6) The volume of gas produced depends on the size and capacity of the landfill but under controlled conditions the benefits of biogas production can run on for decades.
And this is because composting is a natural, organic process. Thermophilic bacteria take over from their less adaptive mesophilic cousins when the core temperature of the composting materials rises above 40 degrees Celsius. But it is not a free for all: the variety of materials that can be broken down in this gentle process is strictly governed by ASTM D6400, the ‘Standard Specification for Labeling of Plastics Designed to be Aerobically Composted in Municipal or Industrial Facilities,’ which outlines the specifications for determining whether a product or its components will compost satisfactorily and biodegrade at a comparable rate to known compostable materials.
So what kinds of items typify the new drive towards bioplastics, biodegradables, and biocompostables? Let’s review this over a drink. From the olive-wrapped martinis of last week to pods of tea and coffee this week – welcome to the compostable face of our favorite beverages.
As we discussed in a recent article, How Do You Take Your Coffee – With Wine or Cockroach Milk?, we imbibe more than 2.2 billion cups of coffee per day. Granted, that is globally, but it’s still a staggering number. And given that some analyses see the global consumption of tea as being three times that of coffee, the combined number of daily brews skyrockets.(7) Now let’s factor into the equation the wide scale adoption of single-serve coffee pods used by companies such as Keurig and Nespresso, among others. Given the convenience, variety, quality, and general ‘X-factor’ of home-brewed espresso drinks, it is estimated that 12 billion single-serve pods are purchased annually – enough to circle the planet no fewer than thirteen times.(8) These pods, composed of materials including aluminum, are proprietary technology and work only with the machines for which they are intended. While available, reusable alternatives to the single-use pods are neither common nor recommended and, having purchased a comparatively expensive brewing machine, the coffee lover is locked into very specific consumer ecosystem. In the case of Nespresso, the pods are recyclable and the company does make an effort to help customers to do the right thing. Pre-paid shipping bags are available in any store, plus all retail outlets will take back used capsules, leading to the company’s stated goal of reaching a capsule recycle rate of 100% by 2020.(9) Termed the Positive Cup program, this initiative sees the virgin aluminum being recycled into a second generation of capsules or being used to construct the machines themselves. But could there be an even better alternative? Perhaps.
In Indiana, Copper Moon Coffee, a family-owned bean roaster and packager, has partnered with Canadian coffee roaster Club Coffee and the Bioproducts Discovery and Development Center at the University of Guelph, Canada, to launch the PurPod100™, an entirely compostable coffee pod made of chaff. This biodegradable material comprises the outer layer of the coffee bean which is removed prior to roasting and is a perfect material from which to fashion a compostable mesh. Winning a Gold medal in the Sustainable Packaging category at the 2017 PAC, Packaging Consortium Canadian Leadership Awards, the PurPod100™ is an entirely renewable resource that can fully disintegrate within twelve weeks. And perhaps the best part of the story is that the PurPod100™ will work with most Keurig machines, the owners of which represent what Copper Moon CEO Brad Gutwein identifies as ‘willing to pay slightly more [because they] already purchase organic fair trade items’ and who have ‘already demonstrated an interest in and commitment to purchasing eco-friendly, sustainable items that make a positive impact upon our environment [and have] voiced a concern over the tremendous waste caused by traditional single-serve cups.’(10)
But what if you do not already possess a single-serve coffee machine? Don’t panic – you are not condemned to guzzling gas station joe. In a perhaps stereotypically British move, Raw Bean, a United Kingdom-based company, has debuted a biodegradable coffee bag. Think tea bag, but in a user-friendly pyramid shape that gives the 12 grams of coffee grounds sufficient wiggle-room to, as the old saying goes, let the flavor to flood out. Available in three varieties including decaffeinated, the Raw Bean bags target coffee connoisseurs who ‘have traded up to better quality coffee after drinking in coffee shops and want the “proper” coffee experience at home or in the office’ but who experience qualms about coffee capsule waste in landfills.(11) The portable and convenient bags promise ‘No mess, no fuss, just cracking coffee’ without the environmental hangover of a petroleum-based plastic capsule sitting in a landfill for all eternity. That’s a development we can all drink to. Now where did we put that teakettle?
Coffee or tea? Boutique espresso or home brew? How much does the issue of biodegradability influence your choice of caffeinated beverage? We’d love to know…in the comments!