Episode 34: Biodegradable Products with Susanna Carson (BSIbio Solutions)
There are all kinds of claims out there about compostability, bio-based packaging, and biodegradability. In this episode, we clarify all those terms, explain why they’re important, and discuss the latest trends in biodegradable products. We then bring on our expert guest Susanna Carson, someone who once wore a compostable ball gown, to tell us about her bio-based product companies and what we should all know about biodegradable products. Armed with this new info, you’ll be sure to impress at your next party - a party that will undoubtedly feature compostable cups (we’re told that parties with compostable cups never break down...except for the cups). Recorded live from the Sustainable Brands '18 conference in Vancouver.
Episode Intro Notes
What We'll Cover:
- Terminology Basics
- What can be labeled as biodegradable?
- Why are biodegradable products important?
- Trends in biodegradable products/packaging
- How listeners can help support biodegradable products
- About Susanna Carson
Let’s start with the term biodegradable. A biodegradable material can be broken down through the action of microorganisms (think bacteria and fungi) that turns into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass within a reasonable amount of time. In other words, it means any material that breaks down and decomposes in the environment. You might be thinking well... that’s everything! And yeah, kind of, but some things degrade faster than others.
Natural materials tend to degrade a lot faster than man-made materials like plastics. Also, the environment that the biodegradable item is located in can speed up or slow down degradation. Consider the parchment (aka, animal skin) that the Declaration of Independence is written on. It’s only because of the carefully controlled atmosphere we have it in that it does not degrade.
How about some examples. When scattered about as litter, here is how long it takes certain items to biodegrade:
- Paper: 2-5 months
- Cigarette butts: 1-12 years
- Leather shoes: 25-40 years
It’s important to note that the typical landfill has very little oxygen and microorganisms in it. So, items in landfills are often very slow to degrade even if they are technically “biodegradable.” For example, that 2-5 months number does not apply to paper in a typical landfill. We read about people finding 50 year old newspapers in landfills that were still readable.
Ok, onto our second term: biodegradable plastic. This is an umbrella term for plastics that are engineered to break down more quickly. There are two classes of biodegradable plastic. The first involves plastics from petrochemicals but that contain additives to enhance degradation. The second class is called bio-plastics, which are made from natural materials like corn starch and sugarcane. So, first class, traditional petrochemicals and second class, natural materials.
Let’s talk more about that second class, bioplastics. There are two-types of bio-plastics:
- Durable Bioplastics. These are designed to last like a traditional PET plastic bottle. An example here is Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle. These bottles are up to 30% plant-based and can be recycled like traditional plastic bottles. Coke has sold more than 50 billion PlantBottles.
- Biodegradable Bioplastics. These are plastics made from natural materials that are designed to decompose quickly. However, most only break down in high-temperature industrial compost facilities rather than the typical compost bin. Plus, they are not recyclable.
One of the most widely used types of biodegradable bioplastics is polylactic acid, which is generally made from cornstarch. Some of the most common uses of PLA are plastic films, bottles, and medical devices. The nice thing about bioplastics like PLA is that they are made from a renewable resource rather than oil. Conventional plastic packaging uses an estimated 200,000 barrels of oil per day in the US.
One study found that switching from traditional plastics to corn-based PLA would cut US greenhouse gas emissions 25%. However, another study found that bioplastics result in greater amounts of pollutants, due to the fertilizers and pesticides used in growing the crops and the chemical processing needed to turn organic material into plastic.
Our next term: compostable. It means that the item is organic matter that can break down into a dark, rich substance called compost or humus (not to be confused with hummus). Compost is a wonderful conditioner for the soil, helping improve its quality and performance in a number of ways. Everything that is compostable is biodegradable since if it is compostable, that means it can be broken down.
Only certain materials are compostable. Think leaves, food scraps, coffee grounds, etc. Unlike a number of biodegradable materials, when compost breaks down, it does not leave metal residue or introduce other harmful materials. So you can feel confident that if something is compostable and taken to a composting facility, it will be broken down and turn into something beneficial for the environment.
So how do you know if something is compostable? The label to look for is the certification from Biodegradable Products Institute, or BPI. If it has a BPI label on it, that means the product meets globally accepted standards for plastics or for fibre based applications, and it will compost in large scale composting facilities.
Want to know more about composting? Check out episode #9.
What can be labeled as biodegradable?
The Federal Trade Commission's Green Guides provide guidance to marketers on what is appropriate to claim and what would be misleading (aka greenwashing). The guidelines state that for marketers to claim a product is biodegradable, the company should have competent and reliable scientific evidence that an entire product or package should completely break down and return to nature within a “reasonably short period of time” after customary disposal. What is a reasonably short period of time, you ask? The FTC says it would be misleading to make an unqualified claim of biodegradability if the item does not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal.
Some states have completely banned the use of biodegradable with all plastic products, since plastic takes so long to biodegrade. For example, California in 2013 banned the use of words like “biodegradable,” “degradable,” or “decomposable” for all plastic products to avoid any possible greenwashing towards consumers.
Why did it make this kind of ban? Well it figured plastics take hundreds of years to biodegrade and may never do so in a landfill so it should ban the use on such materials altogether. In 2017, Walmart agreed to pay $1 million in a settlement in a California case after it was sued for selling plastic products with “biodegradable” and unsubstantiated “compostable claims.”
Why are biodegradable products important?
Often used as plastic substitutes, the easiest way to understand the importance of biodegradable and compostable products is by recalling the amount of plastic waste we’re currently generating. Here are some refresher stats from Episode 24 on Plastics:
- Of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic humans have produced, 6.3 billion tons (about 76%) has already gone to waste.
- Globally, 32% of plastic produced annually flows into our oceans. That’s the equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute. At the current rate of increase, that’ll turn into four garbage trucks per minute by 2050 and by 2050, we’ll have more plastic in the ocean than fish..
With stats like these, it’s clear that this system is unsustainable, which is where biodegradable products can help. But are bio-plastics and biodegradable plastics the solution to preventing wasteful products and packaging?
Well, they may be better than traditional plastics at degrading more quickly, and that there are the trade-offs we mentioned earlier. But most important is to consider where the product is going to go. If it’s compostable but you don’t send it to a composting facility, it won’t turn into compost. If something is a bio-plastic, biodegradable plastic, or just a generally biodegradable product gets sent to a landfill, it could end up not degrading for many years, just like other man-made materials.
With bio-plastics at least, the third term we discussed, these nuances haven’t stopped that market from growing rapidly. The global bio-plastics market was $20 billion in 2016 and is estimated to reach US$ 66 billion in 2022.
Trends in biodegradable products & packaging
Like we mentioned, the use of bio-plastics, which are materials made from renewable resources rather than fossil fuels, is growing. Use of bioplastics made from sugar cane, wood and corn will grow at least 50% in the next five years.
Government policies and corporate goals have the power to shift us away from our linear, single-use system. France was the first country to ban single-use food serviceware made of conventional plastics in 2016. Starting in 2020, all single-use food serviceware must be bio-based and compostable in home compost systems. That level of national government policy will spur new research into these products and hopefully make those products viable in other countries, as well.
Innovators are creating new types of materials into the market
One innovative company in this space is Ecovative. Ecovative is a biomaterials company that uses mycelium, or mushrooms, to grow foam and board-like materials that can be used for products like wall panels, coolers, furniture, and 100% compostable packaging.
Another one is Mango Materials, which is a company that uses waste gas streams as a feedstock for bio-based, biodegradable plastics. Instead of starting with petroleum or renewable materials like corn, this company patented a process to use waste methane from landfills or wastewater treatment plants. They make fully biodegradable biopolyester fibers for use in clothing, and biodegradable caps for single-use bottles. They say their products are “made by bacteria so it can be degraded by bacteria.”
How Listeners can support biodegradable products
Wherever possible, look for products that are certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute, or BPI, which we mentioned earlier. Certified products have a white and green label on them that pictures a leaf and growing tree, often with the letters BPI. These products have been independently tested and verified according to scientifically based standards.
Also remember that reducing or reusing is better than the fastest-degrading biodegradable or compostable product on the market. Reduce, reuse, recycle is the order of the mantra for a reason. Try using glass jars instead of plastic cups, and remember to bring your reusable shopping bag each time you go to the grocery store. Stainless steel can also be used in place of plastic for things like cups, food storage, and dustpans. Look for them online, perhaps on sites like Bambeco (which Jay found by simply googling sustainable gifts).
About Susanna Carson
We were lucky enough to get to talk to an expert on these topics, Susanna Carson, at the Sustainable Brands 18 conference in Vancouver. She is the founder and CEO of BSIbio, a compostable packaging distribution company, and Besics Packaging Corporation, a compostable retail products company. Her companies do more than make great biodegradable products – they also advance industry research by partnering with academic institutions, compost facilities, and organizations like the Composting Council Research and Education Foundation.
Susanna has over 22 years of education and work experience in environmental issues and business development. She serves as co-chair of the Product and Packaging Working Group of the National Zero Waste Council, and she is a founding member of Women for Nature, an organization that supports environmental conservation and education programs.