We know there’s still lots of confusion about bioplastics and planet love. It’s our goal to help demystify all the science-speak with as much everyday language as possible. You’ll find some of the most common questions we receive below. We’re here for you if you need further assistance.
What is a bioplastic?
A material can be called a “bioplastic” if it contains a minimum of 25% plant-based material. When we say “plant-based”, it means that it comes from renewable, plant-based sources. Plant sources currently used for bioplastics are often corn, sugarcane or cellulose, depending on what’s most readily available in the country of manufacture. There’s lots of development happening to expand the source of plant-based materials to include agricultural waste and even CO2 re-capture, which is pretty exciting stuff. The building blocks for our plant-based products and packaging can come from any of these emerging sources, and we intend to integrate the latest developments as they become commercially viable.
What do you mean by plant-based plastic? Is it different than a bioplastic? And what’s this PLA thing you keep mentioning?
There are lots of different terms used to describe bio-based materials and bioplastics. good natured® packaging and products are made using bioplastics, but we like to use the term “plant-based” to keep things real-world and easy to understand. We also add the exact percentage of plant-based material so you know exactly what you’re getting—for instance, our cupcake packaging is made from 99% plant-based material. This is slightly different than just saying it’s a bioplastic, which is a technical term meaning the material must contain a minimum of 25% plant-based ingredients. The other 75% can be anything really, which raises a few flags. PLA, known as polylactic acid or polylactide, is a biodegradable thermoplastic (in simple terms, a plastic that can be heated and cooled multiple times, and also will break down into natural elements) derived from renewable resources, most typically made today using cornstarch or sugarcane. Most plant-based packaging currently on the market is produced using a PLA base as it’s readily available and cost effective. If you want to learn more about the different iterations of plant-based plastics, check out our bioplastics
What is your material made of?
We typically use either a PLA base or bio-PE to make most of our products and packaging. These materials are currently produced from either corn starch or sugarcane, although we expect this to continue to evolve quickly as technology advances. From the base material, our technical team adds additional “herbs and spices” to make the material perform at optimum levels. For our food packaging, we start with a base of “PLA” or polylactic acid. Our bins and totes are primarily I’m Green™
by Braskem and our desk accessories are made from a proprietary blend that our brainy scientists developed in-house.
What if I’m allergic to corn?
The chemical substance in corn that causes allergic reactions, the allergen, is called profilin. Profilin is a protein that breaks down and be completely destroyed at temperatures over 55°C. In order to produce PLA bioplastic resin, the initial raw material, corn, goes through the following high heat processes:
1. Starch is extracted from the corn. Corn, depending on its source, contains about 5-9% protein and 60-65% starch. In order to extract the starch, corn gets cleaned and then goes through steeping (wet milling) where it gets soaked in water above 50°C) for over 40 hrs to break the starch and protein bonds. Then the starch is separated from gluten by centrifugation. At this point it might still contain about 1% protein. In order to remove the last traces of protein, it goes through multiple wash cycles.
2. The resulting starch is converted to D-glucose (dextrose) and then to lactic acid.
3. The lactic acid is then “polymerized” to produce PLA resin at over 200°C.
Given the long timeframes of applied heat, plus the final polymerization stage where the temperature far exceeds the level at which corn proteins can remain intact, the resulting PLA resin is free from any trace of initial substances, particularly, the immunologically reactive allergen, profilin. We want to make sure you have the information you need to make an informed decision for your health and well-being. If you have further questions regarding allergens, please contact us directly for more information or reference material.
Is the corn that you use taking away from the food supply?
Corn is currently the main source of raw materials in North American sourced PLA based bioplastic because it’s incredibly abundant. In commercial farming facilities, not all corn goes to sit on the dinner table, and there are by-products made available through the corn refining process. For instance, a corn crop could be used to make a combination of corn oil, animal feed, sweetener or maybe even plant-based plastics. Altogether, bioplastics use less than 1% of global corn supply annually. Compare that with the 33% of food that gets wasted every year… The impact of plant-based plastics on food supply is extremely small.
Do your products contain toxic chemicals like BPA or phthalates?
Absolutely not! We are 100% committed to keeping BPAs, phthalates, fluorocarbons, phytoestrogens and all those other nasty chemicals out of our packaging and products. Check out the list of things you won’t find in our stuff here
What does biodegradable mean? What does compostable mean? And what the heck is the difference?
Long story short: “biodegradable” means a product will break down into elements found in nature over time. The biodegradation process and timeline is dependent on the surrounding environmental conditions (e.g. location or temperature), and there is no regulated timeline in which a material labelled as biodegradable must break down. “Compostable” means a product will break down in a commercial composting facility into elements found in nature and be usable as soil within 180 days. This regulated timeframe is what creates the big difference between a product that can be certified compostable and one that is biodegradable. There’s also a huge difference between saying something is biodegradable and saying that it’s “degradable”. There are no regulations about what a degradable product will break down into and over what period of time, meaning it could leach harmful elements into the environment. To add to the fun and excitement, not every biodegradable plastic is compostable, and not every plant-based plastic is biodegradable. This is a big topic with a lot of terms that get used interchangeably when they really shouldn’t, so if you’re still a little lost (totally fair), check out our compostable packaging
page. Our goal is to lift the fog as best as possible and let you make an informed decision.
Can I compost bioplastics in my backyard?
The certification process for compostability is limited to commercial facilities where the exact temperature and mixing for optimum biodegradability can be regularly monitored. While compostable plastics may start to show signs of biodegradation in a home compost over time, they likely won’t disappear within a 180-day timeframe. The composting process is activated by a precise combination of heat, sunlight and moisture. This balance between “it’ll break down only under certain conditions” and “it’ll break down whenever, wherever” is actually what makes compostable packaging possible—it’ll stay intact on a store shelf or while holding your food, but it can be broken down and used again to grow more plants once sent to a composting facility.
Why should I buy compostable instead of recyclable?
Firstly, our packaging is also recyclable! You can find more information on that below. In the meantime, there are a lot of other benefits to using compostable packaging. Using compostable packaging can actually help the recycling stream, because your food scraps and its container can all go in the same composting bin, which decreases food contamination in recycling. Also, when a package is composted, that compost can be placed back in the environment. It then can help create a variety of things, such as food, landscaping, or maybe more plant-based plastics. Recycling, on the other hand, does not get put back into the environment – at least not intentionally! For instance, once an aluminum can is made, you’re not going to break that can back down into its components and put it back in a mine. Certain types of recyclable materials *cough, petroleum-based plastic, cough* also lose their quality when they’re recycled, meaning that the plastic milk jug you recycled isn’t going to be another milk jug in its next life without having some performance-enhancing boosters added to the recycled material. Eventually the raw materials become too fragile and low quality to be processed and end up in the landfill, which means traditional recycling alone cannot get us out of our waste epidemic. That is, if it even gets recycled in the first place
What if I don’t have an industrial composter that accepts bioplastics in my area?
Even though composting is the ideal resting place for our packaging, we understand that it’s not always an option depending on where you live. The good news is, a growing list of recycling facilities also accept PLA (our materials can also be recycled multiple times before eventually being composted)! While the recycling industry catches up, we know our commitment to delivering products and packaging made from annually renewable materials and no chemicals of concern is a better choice for us and the environment than fossil fuels.
Are your products recyclable?
Yes, our products are recyclable. There’s no technical barrier to our plant-based materials being re-used. The #7 on the bottom is the “other” resin code
. A huge number of materials carry this same code, over 16,000 other types of plastic that don’t fit into the traditional #1 – #6 identification, actually. Many recyclers still use visual sorting processes instead of the latest infrared identification technology. They find it difficult to distinguish between all the different types of materials, and so they focus on the easiest to identify and sell in the aftermarket. Lack of recycling is more of an industry issue and not a materials science issue. When you hear that bioplastics are not recyclable, what they’re really saying is that the recycler does not have the sorting equipment to differentiate between grades of plastic… yet. It does not mean that the material cannot be used again. In fact, we use our own materials over again wherever possible (check out the FAQ on “does your packaging contain recycled content?” for more info on this!)
Do bioplastics contaminate recycling streams?
That depends entirely on the recycling facility. Many things contaminate recycling streams. Food particles, and especially oils, remaining on food packaging contaminate recycling streams. Lids left on bottles and jars contaminate certain recycling streams. Labels left on containers can contaminate recycling streams. Basically, anything that requires a plastic to be further manipulated, washed or sorted is considered to contaminate the recycling stream. Bioplastics often take the rap for all of this, but they’re no more contaminating that any of these other factors. Another aspect to contamination is if a recycling facility is not receiving enough of a particular type of material to economically sort and re-sell it for profit. Many recyclers are optimized to sort PET #1 bottles and HDPE #2 milk jugs for this reason. When a material arrives that does not meet this profile, recyclers complain that it creates delays and reduces their profitability. For many recyclers, bioplastics are still in the “too small to bother” category, but that does not mean they’re contaminating at a technical level.
Does your packaging contain recycled content?
It sure does! We use up to 35% recycled content in our packaging. Most of this currently comes from post industrial trim from our own production, but we’re assembling more sources of recycled bioplastic that can be used in our manufacturing processes. Note to recyclers… We’ll take it! Check out our FAQ on “do bioplastics contaminate recycling streams?” for more info on this.
What happens when your packaging ends up in the landfill? Or in the environment?
Over time, there will be some biodegradation in a landfill or in the environment, but there are no set statistics to confirm how long this process will take. In fact, all plastics will degrade to some extent, and that has always been a cornerstone of our Green Chemistry approach. As plastics degrade, they begin to release some of their chemical compounds into the surrounding land and water. It’s for this reason that we remain staunchly committed to using the maximum plant-based materials and no hazardous chemicals that may leach into the environment.
What happens if they end up in the ocean?
You’re right to be concerned about this. We are too! Keeping foreign materials out of our oceans is becoming more and more crucial, especially plastics. Our products and packaging have not been tested for this specific end-of-life option, and we don’t make “greenwashing” claims that can’t be supported with specific evidence. In the spirit of supporting a renewable, closed loop economy, our #1 goal is to have our materials end up in the appropriate facilities where we can re-use them or turn them into compost.
Are your plant-based products as durable as petroleum plastics?
Yup! We’ve worked really hard to make sure that’s the case. Very often, the materials we use perform the same if not better than their fossil fuel counterparts. We also have a keen focus on design and form to further increase durability and performance. In some cases, we’re able to both downgauge a package (meaning reduce the thickness of the material and thus save both weight and resources) and improve its durability at the same time.
Do bioplastics cost more than traditional plastics?
They don’t have to. Cost is a combination of the materials, manufacturing processes, distribution and marketing. On a pound-for-pound basis, most bioplastics cost more than their fossil fuel-based counterparts. However, our approach to combining the best materials, optimized designs and our own distribution networks means our product and packaging programs are often cost neutral, or even less than traditional plastics.
Can I put your packaging in the freezer/microwave/oven?
Most are just fine in the freezer. You’re going to end up with a melty mess if you put them in the microwave or the oven, although our melty mess will be free of BPAs and phthalates, unlike some of the traditional stuff ;). Unless you’re doing a Wizard of Oz plastics reenactment, we wouldn’t recommend heating them beyond 45°C (113°F). We’re meltinngg… However, there’s lots of cutting-edge development in this area, so stay tuned!
How are your products going to help me meet my company’s sustainability goals?
There are many ways we can help you make meet your eco-friendly objectives. Here are some of the benefits beyond reducing reliance on fossil fuels:
• Our products and packaging are made without any chemicals of concern. If you’re focused on reducing potentially hazardous chemicals, our plant-based products and packaging can make an impact.
• If you’re increasing your use of renewables (or kicking fossil fuels to the curb, as we like to say!), our products and packaging are made with the maximum possible plant-based materials.
• Bioplastics can be produced using less energy, meaning you may benefit from an immediate reduction in CO2 emissions. Full disclosure, however –specific CO2 reductions have to be confirmed through custom life cycle assessments that take into account your current processes and transportation network.
Can you make a package to fit my specific product needs?