Lisa McTigue Pierce, Executive Editor

December 9, 2014

5 Min Read
Will there be a run on bio-based packaging materials soon?

We’ve seen quite a bit of activity and interest in bio-based packaging materials recently. We wanted to gauge their current use and expected growth within the packaging community, so we included a series of focused questions in our annual survey of packaging and sustainability.

Less than a third (31%) of respondents to Packaging Digest’s 2014 Sustainable Packaging Study are currently using bio-based packaging materials. But looking three to five years down the road, 43% say they plan to use them. (See chart 1 in the Gallery above.) That’s an expected increase of 27%—respectable, but not as high as I would have thought, based on the flurry of developments we’ve been seeing.

Why go there? Survey takers who use bio materials say it’s for the following reasons:

• The materials help minimize one or more environmental impacts—57%;

• The materials add a positive component to the company’s marketing message—57%;

• Consumers expect them—46%;

• The company has a sustainability goal involving use of bio-based materials—44%.

Not many respondents wrote in “Other” reasons, but these three caught my eye for making a good point:

“Consumers 'want' them rather than 'expect'.”

We currently use PLA [polylactic acid] shrink materials around some of our paper-based packaging, but are planning to discontinue because it raises toxicity concerns.” (Really?!)

“We have these options available for customers when they require sustainable options. BUT these are generally DOUBLE the price of standard materials. Kind of messed up, don't you think?” That seems to be what a lot of packaging people think.

What do we mean by “bio-based” materials? We asked if you (1) had heard about or (2) were interested in using non-petroleum-based polymers, wood / cellulose (other than conventional wood fiber in paper and paperboard applications), bamboo, other fibrous materials, sugar cane bagasse, mushrooms, wheat straw and algae (see chart 2 in the Gallery). The “interest in using” a material follows the same order as “heard about” except in one instance: mushrooms. The interest in using dips a bit, which is surprising because, when given the chance later in the survey to tell us what packaging application(s) using a bio-based material got their attention in the last year, mushrooms showed up a lot in the replies in a positive light.

When asked “Why are you interested in those materials?”, respondents answered generally as well as specifically:

“Drop in. No adverse impact onto recycling and recovery. Does not compete with food.”

“Because they are mainly using non-edible and wasted raw material.”

“Easily manufactured in huge quantity.”

“Closest substitute to existing material.”

“They are not plastic.”

“Polymers, if environmentally effective, have the greatest chance of success as ‘drop-in’ products, which will make them easier to implement.”

“I think that at some point our PVC-based blister will become ‘illegal’ to use.”

“They are readily available, can be grown/produced in many markets and are rapidly renewable or the by-product of something else.”

"Renewable sources with better end recovery potential.”

“Alternative fibers that are faster growing would be a huge help in preserving forests.”

“Necessary for closed-loop sustainable packaging.”

“We need to find more/better eco-friendly packaging solutions. Period.”

A switch to bio-based packaging materials is not without challenges, though. Respondents say they are most hesitant because:

• They are too expensive—53%

• They don’t perform as well as the conventional material—31%

• They are not readily available—37%

• None of our supply chain customers are asking for them—31%

• Consumers do not expect them—17%

Some “Other” (17%) replies point out more specific considerations:

“Cost, performance and availability are not long term. Barriers—will improve with adoption.”

“Changing any packaging materials requires extension validation testing to satisfy FDA requirements.”

“It is not clear the ‘bio based’ versus ‘petroleum based’ is truly more sustainable given that there are limitations on bio-based raw material sources as well.”

“They not only do not perform well, they do not meet minimum needs for barriers for food preservation.”

“Largest challenge is non GMO.” [GMO is genetically modified organism]

“They are a farce and worse for the environment. Compostable plastic and bio-plastic are just plastic with white-washed names.”

“Many technologies can't be applied to existing packaging equipment. It is difficult to find or convince packaging manufacturers to use new materials on their lines.”

“Finding suitable outlets for disposal is the problem. They get mixed up with conventional materials and then ruin their recycling. Or they go to landfill where they do more harm than good and don't effectively biodegrade.”

If a switch to a bio-material is imminent, where might it show up? We asked, “Where do you think the most potential exists for bio-based materials to replace conventional packaging materials?” Conventional plastics are the most vulnerable; glass and metal the least. (See chart 3 in the Gallery).

We also asked “What packaging application(s) using a bio-based material got your attention in the last year and why?” Bamboo and mushrooms showed up a lot in the replies: “Bamboo is super trendy right now.” “Bamboo: I was very impressed how they can make the paper-like, molded material to be waterproof.” And “mushrooms, who would've thought?”

On the brand-owner side, memorable developments were Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle (by name and by description) and Dell’s use of mushroom cushioning. “Coke bottle. Heavy publicity.”  “Bio-based beverage containers gained interest because the effort seems to be growing and permanent rather than a fad.” And “Dell's carbon-negative AirCarbon material because 'carbon-negative'!” “Dell's Packaging for its computers as they are on the cutting edge of sustainable packaging.”

On the supplier side, Braskem, Sealed Air and TetraPak were mentioned multiple times as known and responsible suppliers of eco-friendly materials.

While most of the answers were positive, a couple people did cite the loud SunChips compostable bag as a negative: “The SunChips noisy film debacle (it was unexpected).”

Here are some other interesting and/or insightful replies regarding noteworthy packaging applications of bio-based materials in 2014:

“Sugar based—price of sugar went up substantially.”

“Bio ink. As most of the currently used inks are hazardous materials.”

“Bio plastics from fish scales and shrimp. Promising, but concerned about supply stream.”

“None, really. My industry is high volume, low-mid cost consumer goods. We don't explore much in areas without established, reliable supply streams of proven quality and low price volatility.”

“Earthbottle used by Gaia Herbs. Is a modified PLA that has better performance characteristics than straight PLA.”

“Soya coating as an alternative to wax coatings—huge potential for oil savings, increases recyclability, renewable resource, just as effective.”

About the Author(s)

Lisa McTigue Pierce

Executive Editor, Packaging Digest

Lisa McTigue Pierce is Executive Editor of Packaging Digest. She’s been a packaging media journalist since 1982 and tracks emerging trends, new technologies, and best practices across a spectrum of markets for the publication’s global community. Reach her at [email protected] or 630-272-1774.

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