Can CPG Companies Help Save the World, One Package at a Time?

CPG companies
Biodegradable plastics may seem like the perfect solution to waste for CPG companies; however, compostable plastics may not be as environmentally friendly as they seem.
Image source: Flickr user SuSanA Secretariat

The hazards of plastic pollution are well-known to many, including the potential to poison and entangle animals, and even to resurface in the human food supply where the chemical additives can prove especially harmful for the most vulnerable among us. In this milieu, CPG companies have taken an interest in biodegradable plastic—plastic that can decompose due to the action of living organisms, usually bacteria.1 Though biodegradable plastics are not necessarily made from biomaterials such as plants, CPG companies have more seriously considered biodegradability as a positive functionality of plastic (along with durability, strength, etc.) and its use often appeals to an increasingly environmentally conscious consumer base.

A number of researchers, however, have begun to raise suspicions on just how biodegradable these compostable plastics really are. As Professor Fred Michel told KQED Science, “It’s difficult to imagine a material you could add to them [plastics] that would magically make them biodegradable.”2 Moreover, other scientists have even argued that the additives used to confer biodegradability may actually cause more environmental harm than good and should be banned from use in manufacturing. The question becomes: to what extent (if at all) should CPG companies embrace biodegradable plastics to appease consumers?

Two Steps Forward with Simulation Software

CPG companies and others who have attempted to create biodegradable plastic to package their products usually do so by combining plastics with additives that attract microbes to the site of degradation.3 However, research efforts have shown that many of these plastics do not undergo significant biodegradation, at least to the extent advertised—a company practice known as “greenwashing.”4 For CPG companies to make real and sustained progress in this area, there must be a greater effort to characterize additives and leverage this knowledge toward creating improved versions of current additives. In undergoing these efforts, CPG companies can also determine to what extent simple waste reduction efforts could help ameliorate the problem of plastic pollution.

Clear Characterization with Polymer Simulation Software: When CPG companies and associated researchers try to create new biodegradable plastics, their inventions often involve polymer-additive blends. Simulation software that can predict the physical properties and characteristics of these binary mixtures can be especially important for developing stable, cost-effective formulas. In using simulation software, considerable experimentation can be accomplished from the comfort of one’s computer desk to optimize the product shelf-life, reduce the product’s risk of failure and to replace expensive solvents. In the case of biodegradable plastics, more mixed formulations can be simulated to determine if they meet certain basic requirements (i.e. no phase separation or aging when stored, etc.) before testing their chemical characteristics.

Chemical Reactions Tests: Oftentimes, materials scientists create plastics and materials meant to withstand material degradation. However, in the case of creating biodegradable plastics, understanding the chemical reactions that increase the reaction rate of degradation becomes essential. As such, modeling and simulation software can assist CPG companies to understand and predict how plastics will perform in various conditions by evaluating their reaction energies, thermodynamic balances and predicting other characteristics, such as heat capacity. With the right software, the results of these simulation tests can be stored and documented. Depending on how the plastic additives do in the “real world,” these results can be re-used to determine if a particular additive is promising or to determine how it compares to additives that are most promising. For example, polyhydroxyalkanoate-based plastics are known to be among the most biodegradable and could be used as a “positive control” for screening new plastic candidates.

Using Less vs. Using Different Plastic

The effort to test and determine which additives could potentially improve the biodegradability of plastics is no small feat, though simulation and modeling software can go a long way toward providing CPG companies with a basic profile of these plastics and their potential usefulness. In more precisely estimating potential costs using software such as BIOVIA Materials Studio and recording this information in an electronic laboratory notebook, like the BIOVIA Notebook, companies can determine whether simply using less plastic is more economical than using biodegradable plastic. Regardless of the choice CPG companies ultimately take, BIOVIA offers the software and tools to provide your company with the information it needs to make informed, cost-effective decisions. To learn more about how we can support your work, please contact us today.

  1. “How long does it take for plastic to biodegrade?” http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/how-long-does-it-take-for-plastics-to-biodegrade.htm
  2. “Biodegradable Plastics: Too Good to be True?” June 12, 2014, http://ww2.kqed.org/quest/2014/06/12/biodegradable-plastics-too-good-to-be-true/
  3. “EcoPure technology from Bio-Tec Environmental, LLC allows the process of biodegradation to happen at an accelerated te in treated plastics,” http://www.goecopure.com/biodegradable-plastic-technology.aspx
  4. “Biodegradability of conventional and bio-based plastics and natural fiber composites during composting, anaerobic digestion and long-term soil incubation,” December 2013, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0141391013003066

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