Innovate Blog
Shifting conventional plastics into the renewable resource arena

Tuesday September 12, 2017

Ask the Expert: Jo Gilroy (Head of Sustainability).

We asked our Sustainability expert ‘what are ‘drop-in’ bio-plastics?’

And here’s what she told us…

When it comes to understanding environmentally friendly disposable packaging in the foodservice industry, it’s easy to become lost in the expanding repertoire of language surrounding it. From biodegradable, degradable and compostable to Oxo-biodegradable, bio-derived and renewable.

Sustainability Expert - Jo Gilroy Twitter - @JoannaGilroy

Sustainability Expert – Jo Gilroy Twitter – @JoannaGilroy

Although all these terms mean slightly different things, they are variations on a central theme: a shifting of conventional, non-renewable fossil based plastics into the renewable resource arena.

But the new kid on the block: a material called a ‘drop-in’ bio plastic (also known as a bio-based plastic) is different.

A relative new-comer to the disposable food packaging industry, ‘drop-in’ bio plastics look like, function and feel just like a conventional plastic.  But importantly, and not as the name suggests, like conventional plastics drop-in bio plastics are not biodegradable or compostable, but instead they are fully recyclable.

Let’s step back and look at how conventional plastics made.  Putting it simply, crude oil is extracted from the earth and sent to an oil refinery where it undergoes a process called distillation.  This is where all the various compounds in the oil are extracted to be made into various products, including several types of plastic.

It is well understood that this process causes environmental damage and is inherently unsustainable, from the non-renewable resource heavily mined, the C02 added to the earth’s atmosphere and the waste created from plastics that end up littered in the world’s oceans and on land.

Drop-in or bio-based plastics are positively changing the environmental impact of plastic production and use.  These plastics are manufactured from renewable bio materials such as corn and sugar cane.  Through a process called fermentation, the starch is extracted from the crops and used to create a ‘drop-in’ replacement polymer for the oil based polymers used in conventional plastic production.

This process sounds and is very similar to the way in which PLA, a compostable and biodegradable plastic material is produced.  However, there is a crucial difference.  Drop-in or bio based plastics are not compostable or biodegradable.  They are in fact fully recyclable and have been designed to ‘drop-in’ to the existing recycling systems without disrupting the quality or financial value of the recycling stream.

A key challenge of compostable and biodegradable plastics is that the composting infrastructure is limited, making it difficult to ensure this material ends up being processed as intended at the end of its life.

Drop-in or bio-based plastics have been designed with the existing waste management system in mind, making responsible disposal and end of life treatment straightforward.  The Coca-Cola PlantBottle and Huhtamaki’s Future Smart disposable product range are excellent examples of drop-in plastics in action.

A smart infographic (shown as the title image) from the Polymer Innovation blog clearly shows the renewable material benefit of drop-in plastic PolyEthylene (PE), how 1 hectare of land can produce 3 tonnes of bio-based plastic.  Of course, with all bio based materials, it is very important to know where the crops used in production are grown and managed. This in itself must also be sustainable.

Drop-in or bio-based plastics represent an important innovation in plastic production, not only from the shift to renewable feedstock, but also from viewing plastic production, and use, as being part of a broader ‘system’ with various components, from production through to disposal.  This new material has so far seamlessly ‘dropped-in’, bringing improved environmental benefit with many being none the wiser.