Strategies for making bioplastic decisions have meaningful impact

Retailers of all stripes are pursuing greater sustainability. Driven by cost savings and performance benefits, pressure from consumers, regulatory bodies and the investment community, retailers consider sustainability a priority. One initiative retailers are exploring to improve environmental performance is the use of bioplastics for foodservice and other packaging. Demand for bioplastics is surging. According to the 2020 Annual Market Update from European Bioplastics, the global bioplastics production capacity is set to increase from 2.1 million tonnes in 2020 to 2.8 million tonnes in 2025.  

While the term bioplastics triggers notions of biodegradability, renewable resources and reduced waste, the bioplastics market can include a variety of different products and may or may not achieve commonly perceived sustainability benefits.

What are bioplastics? 

Bio-based plastics refer to plastics made from living matter (biomass). The intent behind using bio-based plastics is to reduce the amount of petroleum-based plastic, which uses fossil fuels that, when disposed of improperly, fill landfills and waterways with materials that take hundreds of years to decompose. However, bioplastics refer to a wide range of materials that may be grouped into three categories, according to European Bioplastics: 1) bio-based or partly bio-based, non-biodegradable plastics; 2) plastics that are both bio-based and biodegradable; and 3) plastics that are based on fossil resources and are biodegradable. For example, some bio-based PETs are not biodegradable and others are petroleum-based, like polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT), which is a polymer designed to enable compostable packaging. Engineers design these bioplastics with a primary objective in mind and may not meet all consumer expectations of these materials.

What are retailers to do? 

With some level of confusion and contradiction now surrounding bioplastics, how can retailers select bioplastic products that will ultimately achieve greater sustainability?  

1.    Consider conditions required to secure sustainability benefits 

With so many bioplastic formulations and products, the selection of truly environmentally beneficial materials can be confusing. As an example, the terms biodegradable and compostable are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Plastic that is compostable is always biodegradable, but not every plastic that is biodegradable is compostable. The term biodegradable must be qualified by the environment in which the material will biodegrade, e.g. soil or water, and the timeframe of decomposition. Compostable plastics must biodegrade into compost, must decompose at a rate similar to other materials being composted, and must leave behind no toxic residue that would affect the ability of the compost to support plant growth. Not all compostable materials are suitable for backyard composting; in fact, most bioplastic labelled compostable is intended for an industrial or commercial facility. If these facilities are not easily accessible to the consumer, then the majority of plastic material is just as likely as petroleum-based plastic to end up in landfills or waterways.  

When selecting bioplastic, think about the infrastructure required and how it is possible to establish or partner with others to establish that infrastructure to treat the material. Is it possible to design a collection program to intercept plastic materials and direct them to industrial composting facilities? Or are regional strategies needed to select bioplastics in regions that have local recycling collection programs? Consider the conditions required to secure the desired sustainability benefits.

2.   Ensure accuracy of claims

In light of the broad definition and abundance of bio-based plastics available, it’s important to ensure the plastic material is as represented. By requiring their suppliers to present third-party certification of the bioplastic’s particular environmental claim, retailers can confirm that the materials offer the stated benefits. This helps reduce liability and build trust in their own brand. Under the new U.K. standard, PAS 9017, introduced by the British Standards Institute (BSI), within the next two years all plastic will have to break down into organic matter and carbon dioxide in the open air to be classified as biodegradable. This standard is designed to prevent greenwashing associated with biodegradable labels that may not meet this definition. The best way to comply with this standard and to select bioplastics that achieve their sustainability claims is to require third-party testing from suppliers. Consult the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs green claims guidance to ensure you are making clear, defensible, market facing claims.

3.   Prioritize based on your goals 

When prioritizing sustainability initiatives, understand your brand’s goals and capabilities. Selecting bioplastic packaging because that appears to be a priority for other retailers may not be the best option for your organization. It may be possible to consider alternative solutions that could achieve similar – or better – benefits. For example, is it possible to reduce the use of plastic packaging by some other means? Some retailers offer discounts to customers who arrive with reusable containers. In other cases, it may be possible to transition to cardboard packaging or other alternative materials. By approaching the problem in a different way, it may be possible to identify innovative ways to accomplish the same goal. 

With some level of confusion surrounding bioplastics, how can retailers select bioplastic products that will ultimately achieve greater sustainability?

With a greater understanding of bioplastics and some careful strategic planning, retailers can have a significant impact on reducing plastic waste in our landfills and oceans. The important thing is to be aware of the many options for achieving sustainability goals and understanding that it’s not necessarily a single attribute that ensures sustainability. UL can help you evaluate the many options and understand the complexities of bioplastics. We are a trusted name in sustainability advisory services and third-party testing and certification. Reach out to us or explore our resources as your map your path to sustainability.

Catherine Sheehy is the global lead for sustainability partnerships at UL, where she helps corporate leaders implement sustainability related programs and greener product initiatives and helps steward UL’s collaborative work with external partners to advance evidence-based sustainability and circularity solutions. For more information about UL, visit our   

Alicia Levine joined UL for the summer of 2021 as an EDF Climate Corps Fellow where she focused on an environmental claim research project related to marine biodegradability. Alicia is finishing her final year as an MBA at the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. 

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This article was also published in The Retailer, our quarterly online magazine providing thought-leading insights from BRC experts and Associate Members.