Canadian Plastics

Biodegradable Market Firming Up

By Cindy Macdonald, associate editor   



Compostable bags for kitchen and yard waste, and single-use food service ware are currently the most visible applications of biodegradable polymers, and will likely be the early growth markets for these resins in the packaging sector. "These marke...

Compostable bags for kitchen and yard waste, and single-use food service ware are currently the most visible applications of biodegradable polymers, and will likely be the early growth markets for these resins in the packaging sector. “These markets are going to grow by leaps and bounds,” says Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), a New York-based organization which promotes the growth of biodegradable products through education and the development of science-based standards.

A sustained push from industry associations such as BPI, plus suppliers, purchasers, and others, has brought some clarity to the marketing of biodegradable products. There are now several standards that clearly define whether a resin is suitable for composting, which facilitates the buying decision for both municipal officials and consumers. However, as with recycling, compostable properties are useless without the infrastructure to deliver the products to a facility with the proper conditions for their return to the earth. The advances in resin properties and converting technology need to be matched by a composting infrastructure to truly build the market.

THE STAMP OF APPROVAL

“The Compostable Logo program continues to grow rapidly in both the US and Canada,” says Mojo. “With the approval of products from five major resin suppliers, and interest from converters in North American and Europe, awareness of the program will grow along with the confidence of consumers and composters.”

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Products carrying the Compostable Logo awarded by BPI are designed to be a readily available food source for microorganisms during composting. These products are converted to carbon dioxide, water and biomass, and will not leave behind any plastic fragments that reduce the value of the finished compost. Products certified by BPI meet the ASTM standard D6400-99 “Specification for Compostable Plastics”.

Two Canadian converters are already on board with BPI. Farnell Packaging Ltd. (Dartmouth, NS) received certification for its biodegradable films and bags in January 2003. W. Ralston (Canada) Inc. (Brampton, ON) followed in August 2003 with certification for its Biosak line of kitchen and garden waste bags.

“We are pleased to carry the BPI’s symbol on our Biosak “New Generation Plastic” line of kitchen and garden waste bags,” says Wayne Riviere, W. Ralston’s marketing manager. “We print the BPI Compostable symbol on each bag and on the packaging. Municipal officials have told us that an easy-to-recognize symbol on the packaging is a critical step in ensuring that consumers purchase bags that are certified to a recognized standard which ensures the product will compost and not leave any plastic residues. Commercial composters will recognize the logo on the bags at curbside collection.”

W. Ralston is a supplier of garbage bags, construction and agricultural films, plastic drop sheets, retail food wraps and sandwich bags.

THE BUILDING BLOCKS: BIODEGRADABLE RESINS

Among the resins certified compostable by the BPI are Eastman Chemical Co.’s Eastar Bio copolyester, DuPont Biomax 4026 polyester, BASF’s Ecoflex copolyester, Novamont’s Mater-Bi resin, and Cargill Dow’s NatureWorks polylactide.

Eastman’s material is available in two formulas. Eastar Bio GP is best suited for extrusion coating and cast film applications. Eastar Bio Ultra is designed for use in blown films. Both materials are also being used in fibre and nonwovens applications.

Eastman states that applications are also being developed in food packaging, and in agricultural film, where the biodegradable plastic could be tilled directly back into the soil without any residual effects on plants or soil.

Farnell Packaging uses Eastman’s Eastar Bio material.

BASF’s Ecoflex resins are an aliphatic-aromatic copolyester suited for making bags, disposable packaging or agricultural sheeting. For applications in films and coatings for food packaging, BASF says the addition of thermoplastic starch improves the property profile of Ecoflex.

DuPont’s Biomax is a hydro/biodegradable polyester that can be used as a film or coating in disposable food service packaging, such as bowls, cups, sandwich wraps and clamshell sandwich containers.

Novamont’s Mater-Bi material is starch-based and runs on standard polyethylene film extrusion equipment. Produced in Italy, it is used by thousands of communities in Europe for municipal collection of compostable organic waste.

W. Ralston’s Biosak bags are made of Mater-Bi resin.

BIODEGRADABLE DOES NOT EQUAL COMPOSTABLE

There is a difference between a compostable and a biodegradable plastic. Put simply, a biodegradable plastic will break down due to the action of microorganisms into carbon dioxide, water and biomass.

The ASTM specification for compostable plastic states that it must biodegrade (be converted rapidly to carbon dioxide, water and biomass); disintegrate (not be visible or need to be screened); and be safe for the environment (produce no harmful by-products).

APPEALING TO THE CONSUMER

According to recent reports from Cargill Dow, the company is having success with its NatureWorks PLA resin in packaging markets. Both rigid and flexible food packages made of the corn-derived polylactide resin are used by a number of food retailers in the U.S. and Europe.

Cargill Dow’s polymer production facility, headquartered in Blair, Neb., produces approximately 140,000 metric tons of NatureWorks PLA per year. The plant is currently running at full capacity. Commenting on the resin’s growth potential, Lisa Owen, global business leader for rigid packaging, Cargill Dow, says “It is our anticipation that within the next few years, PLA will be a major polymer platform similar to other petroleum-based polymer platforms and will support numerous, world scale production facilities by the end of the decade.”

Retailers using Nature Works are successfully boosting sales by branding the packaging as a “natural” package for fresh foods.

U.S.-based natural foods grocer Wild Oats Markets is using containers made of NatureWorks PLA to package deli items. The company is using the concept of “natural” packaging to demonstrate its commitment to the environment, and estimates that 60% of customers return the containers for composting.

Similarly, the concept of compostable, disposable food service items can be a boon to major outdoor events. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival held in Colorado this past June served up approximately 41,000 meals using plates, cups and utensils made of NatureWorks PLA. The discards were then composted by a local company.

Now that biodegradable polymers have been more clearly defined, and consumers can be swayed by an appeal to their environmental consciousness, it may be the time to explore opportunities for biodegradable products.

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PACKAGING SUPPLIERS SPARED BLUE BOX FEES-FOR NOW

An intense lobbying effort fronted by the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (Mississauga, ON) has led to a moratorium on the voluntary provisions of Ontario’s Blue Box recycling program. The provisions could allow brand owners and first importers of record to ask their packaging suppliers for “voluntary” payments to offset recycling levies assessed under the Province’s Waste Diversion Act, or Bill 90.

In a letter delivered to the Chair of Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO) in May, Ontario Minister of Environment Leona Dombrowsky supported the CPIA’s position to suspend the voluntary provisions as written.

In the letter, Dombrowsky wrote: “Another vital element is the need to ensure that the framework for addressing voluntary stewards is consistent with the Plan’s commitments that it will affect Ontario’s marketplace in a fair manner, as you went to some length to outline in Addendum 1 submitted last August. I emphasize this purposefully as a number of stakeholders complain of being pressured to volunteer, in circumstances where this would appear to be a distortion of the Plan.”

Dombrowsky has requested that the WDO develop a new voluntary provision policy applicable for
only out-of-province brand owners and franchisors who wish to pay levies on behalf of their frachisees.

According to Cathy Cirko, CPIA vice president, environment & health, the CPIA and plastics industry has been invited to participate in the development of the new voluntary provision policy. It is expected that the revised recycling regulations will be approved by the end of 2004.

“We will continue to work on issues concerning the uncapped costs of municipal recycling and the ever-escalating levies to brand owners of municipal recycling, particularly respecting plastics,” said Cirko.

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