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Meeting Mythbusters: Bioplastic fantastic?

Biodegradable plastic may not be as beneficial to your event as you might think.

OraclePhoto: Hartmann Studios

Odds are you’re likely using them at your event right now. But what do you really know about them, and should you be using them? Today’s Meeting Mythbusters dives into the often confusing and temptingly convenient world of bioplastics!

What is bioplastic? In simplest terms, bioplastic is derived from living, renewable materials like corn, sugar and vegetable oils. This can be contrasted with common plastics that rely more on non-renewable fossil fuels.

Where are bioplastics used at events? Events may use bioplastics for many things: food serviceware and packaging, name badge holders, tabletop liners, banner material, floral wrapping, folder and folio covers and many other places where you might use traditional plastic.

Bioplastics are good, right? As with most things related to sustainability, this is a difficult question to unequivocally answer. Bioplastics have advantages. And they have drawbacks. The question is therefore best answered in the context of your individual event. The first question to ask is do you need the item, and if so, are bioplastics the best solution? For example, bioplastic badge holders may not be the best choice if you can get rid of your holder entirely. However, if you need a holder to store program guides or tickets for a meal function, bioplastic may be a better choice than a holder made of virgin PVC, a common badge plastic. The answer may also depend on the perceptions of your attendees, sponsors and other stakeholders in the event. What would they think of your decision to use bioplastic? Do they care, or have an opinion on bioplastics? If they do, it is important to take into consideration.

Do bioplastics degrade? Yes, and, well…kinda, maybe…sometimes no? Technically, all bioplastics will degrade, or break down. But because there are many kinds of bioplastics, the more specific question is: how quickly and completely will they degrade under certain conditions? Some bioplastics fully break down within months. Other bioplastics are designed to be more durable, and break down so slowly they might be considered non-biodegradable. The same kind of bioplastic can also degrade very differently depending on if it is sent to landfill, or a commercial compost facility. The same bioplastic in the same landfill can even degrade differently depending on the conditions! A key point that causes confusion about bioplastics: compostable bioplastics are different than biodegradable bioplastics. Confusing the two terms can be expensive, as mistakes can lead to disposal fines for you or your venue if biodegradable materials placed in compost are found to be not compostable. To avoid surprises if you are intending to compost your items, ask the company taking your compost about  any technical standards that might need to be met by bioplastics you use. Also ask if there are any bioplastics you should avoid using that they know have been problematic. Most haulers will require conformity with ASTM D6400, ASTM D6868, EN 13432, or BPI certification if you want to compost your bioplastic. It’s also important to follow up several months after your event to ensure discards have actually degraded.

How do I know if the bioplastics I’m using break down completely and quick enough? This is very important if you’re planning to compost your items. Ask the person selling you the biopastic if the material has been tested against accepted standards for biodegradability, or compostability (depending on what you are planning to do with it). Don’t be surprised if you are referred to a technical specialist within their company as sometimes sales representatives may not be in possession of the answers you need. Ask for written proof of compostability claims before you buy. Most companies will be more than willing to produce a certificate or testing documentation. If they have not been tested, or the company is unwilling to share information with you, that should be a flag that you may want to work with another supplier if you intend to compost your bioplastics. A few cautions: documentation should be from a third party who is not your supplier, such as a respectable testing lab, or BPI themselves. The certificate should also not be altered (something that I wish I didn’t have to advise to look for, but hey, I’ve seen it happen, so word to the wise!). There are several standards for testing biodegradability of plastics that mean different things. Some ensure you can compost it, others affirm that it will merely biodegrade, but do not validate it can be composted. So make sure you note the certification or standard number required by your hauler and look for that certification or number from the supplier of your compostable items. The certificate may also be given for the resin the plastic is made of, or the end product made from the resin. It’s very important to ensure the finished item you’re buying, and not just the resin, is tested. This is because some manufacturers may not use 100% of the certified resin in the product they’re selling you. Now be prepared: the test documentation can leave you feeling like you need a doctorate in environmental engineering to make heads or tails of it. My advice? Don’t hesitate to contact the lab or organization named on the testing document and ask for a simple translation. This is also a good way to double-check that testing is up-to-date with prevailing standards, which can change. And it gives you something to send to your hauler to verify all is in order, reducing the chance your compost may be rejected.

So if it doesn’t degrade quickly, can’t I recycle it? Possibly, but unlikely. You must check if the material is accepted for recycling in the destination where your event is held. This can sometimes be done by checking the resin code, or numbered triangle on the container and cross-referencing it with the plastic types accepted by your hauler. If there isn’t a number, ask the supplier of the material if they know the resin code. They may also have a take-back program if the local hauler cannot help you with the item. If you don’t know the resin code and there is no take-back option with the supplier, it is safest to throw it out in landfill. It is a common misconception that any bioplastic can be composted or recycled. Due to the different kinds of bioplastic in use today, unfortunately the answer is not so simple and special checking is required. Note that #7 is a catch-all code for different types of plastic, including bioplastics, and is often not recyclable.

But the event sustainability standards say I can use it, right? The APEX ASTM Environmentally Sustainable Event Standards do indeed permit bioplastics as a “greener” alternative in many cases. ISO 20121 does not expressly support use of bioplastics, however an event sustainability management system developed using the standard may permit bioplastics.

Why all the fuss? The bright side of bioplastics is they are a stepping stone away from fossil-fuel plastics. This can alleviate dependency on non-renewable resources and is particularly beneficial in the medical field where reuse and recycling solutions may not be feasible. However, there are valid concerns with bioplastics event professionals should know about before purchasing them. Advocates argue crops grown for bioplastics and bio-fuel take land away from growing food crops and use genetically modified organisms. Others express concern that incomplete degradation adds tiny bits of all types of plastic to food webs, which negatively impact animal and human health. Unlike the medical field, another valid criticism toward the event industry comes from the perception bioplastics are being used for convenient, promotional and non-essential items. They can allow us to feel okay with tossing something out that we could easily reuse or reduce, if we took a bit more effort.

What say you? Are bioplastics the new fantastic? Or are you taking efforts to eliminate the use of plastics at your events entirely?

Blog post inspired by Paige Brown’s Bioplastics column on SciLogs, August 5, 2013, and event sustainability expert Linda Champagne of Hartmann Studios.

Check out these other Meeting Mythbusters!


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