For the ecology criterion, seven sub-criteria (parameters), which are considered essential for organic food producers, have been included in the assessment: land use/competition for food, environmental compatibility, certifications (cultivation and processing), genetic engineering, end of life (recycling, composting), life cycle assessments and bio-based content.
Generally, raw materials from agriculture and forestry are used for bio-based plastics. They thus compete with food and feed production or other types of agricultural land use. On the other hand, for fossil-based plastics, it is necessary to take into account the climate relevance, the finite nature of the raw material and the negative environmental impacts of extracting them. According to the IFBB’s 2019 edition of Biopolymers facts and statistics, the land required for bio-based plastics (excluding cellulose, its derivatives, rubber and linoleum) is 0.82 million hectares. This area currently represents 0.016% of the world’s agricultural land. It is significantly less than the area used for the cultivation of energy crops (for biofuel and biogas production) in Germany alone, which was 2.37 million hectares in 2019, according to data from the Fachagentur Nachwachsende Rohstoffe [Agency for Renewable Resources]. With regard to the competition for land with food production, it should be taken into account that the proportion of food from animal sources and food waste is high in industrialised countries and can be reduced. Resource efficiency is an important principle in the bioeconomy, where the use of secondary flows must also be taken into account. In principle, bio-based plastics can be produced from any plant substrate. In addition, residual materials from the food industry can increasingly be used. There are major differences regarding the efficiency of the raw materials used (input raw materials – output bioplastics). Furthermore, the effectiveness of the production process also plays a major role.
Further information on the land use, processing routes and space efficiency of the “new” bio-based plastics can be found on the pages of the Institute for Bioplastics and Biocomposites, Hannover University of Applied Sciences and Arts (IfBB Hannover) Ifbb, Facts and Statistic 2019.
In order to maintain soil fertility and preserve agricultural land in the long term, it should be sustainably managed worldwide, regardless of the crop.
The cultivation of agricultural raw materials consumes water, energy and fuel. Pesticides and fertilisers are also used. Individual companies cooperate closely with agricultural production and influence the cultivation process. In future, manufacturers will increasingly rely on production from residual materials. Many manufacturers are investigating the possibility of production from residual materials. For example, there are research projects on alternative raw materials such as those made from chitosan or algae.
If plastics are produced from the finite resources of crude oil, natural gas or coal, it should be taken into account that, depending on the country of origin and the extraction process, increasingly greater negative environmental impacts, particularly on soil, water, air and climate, are to be expected during extraction, transport and processing. A brief overview of the environmental impacts of oil production can be found here.
Sustainability certifications for cultivation allow environmental impacts to be evaluated and documented. To date, the authors of the study are not aware of any recognised evidence of sustainability criteria for fossil-based plastics that take into account the origin of the raw material in question, including local, production and process conditions.
Packaging/products which carry the Working Landscapes Certificate, Bonsucro, PEFC and ISCC PLUS certifications stand for production without the use of genetically modified crops. With standard ISCC certification, genetic engineering cannot be ruled out. There is also the certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB). Here is an analysis by the WWF on the certification of fuels. These can also serve as raw materials for bio-based plastics (e.g. ethanol for the production of bio-PE).
A lower limit for the real measurable biomass content of a certified product exists, e.g. RSB (25 %), but not for ISCC, which certifies the I’m Green range. RSB certificates for bio-based plastics have not yet been issued.
It should be noted that companies with a certain certification do not usually process exclusively certified goods. If the customer wishes to have certified goods, this must be agreed upon contractually.
The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in organic products is not permitted in agricultural production nor processing, in accordance with EU Organic Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007 Art. 9. An overwhelming majority of consumers in Germany also reject GMOs in food (cf. Ökobarometer [Organic Barometer] 2019, p. 15). There are fears of excessive dependence on seed producers, contamination of food and endangered biodiversity. Food manufacturers see their credibility threatened by the use of GMOs in packaging material, especially when GMO plants are used as agricultural raw materials. Bio-based plastics can also be produced without GMO plants as raw materials. GMO-free alternatives are increasingly available.
In general, the levels of the waste hierarchy according to Section 6 of the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act, which also takes into account the requirements of the EU Waste Framework Directive, are listed here. They apply to all packaging regardless of the materials used.
- Preparation for reuse
- Other recovery, in particular energy recovery and backfilling
The 2018 Packaging Act (Verpackungsgesetz) implements these targets via the following objectives:
waste prevention, higher recycling rate, better eco-design – minimum standards of recyclability, use of recyclates, use of renewable raw materials and through more transparency and incentives in the assessment of licence fees. The new recycling quota pursuant to Section 16(4) of the Packaging Ordinance (VerpackV) for plastic packaging licensed in the dual system is to initially increase from the current 36% to 58% in stage 1 (2019) and to 63% by 2022. In 2017, 30% of all plastics produced in Germany (corresponding to 6.15 million tonnes) were used for packaging.
When bio-based plastics are disposed of via energy recovery, the carbon absorbed by the plant (biogenic carbon) is once again released. In contrast, in the case of fossil-based plastics, carbon from fossil deposits is emitted into the air as CO2, which increases global warming.
The following disposal routes are possible for food packaging: recycling and energy recovery.
The composting of food packaging is not permitted in Germany. It is in contradiction to the goal of the circular economy, which is to preserve plastics produced in an energy- and resource-intensive manner and to use them as materials.
The following processes are classified as recycling:
1. Material recycling
In material recycling, the plastic is recycled without changing its molecular structure. The granulate produced from used plastics is no longer of the same high quality as virgin material due to the mixing of additives and dyes added to the raw materials. According to the German Environment Agency’s 2017 report on packaging waste, 38.1% or 0.461 tonnes of 1.2 million tonnes of plastics from packaging collected by the dual systems are recycled in this fashion (of which 0.32 million tonnes in Germany and 0.14 million tonnes abroad). These are mainly pure PET, PP and PE materials. However, many plastic packaging materials consist of composites or materials that cannot be recycled in this manner. Bio-based plastic packaging has a market share of about 0.5% and material recycling can currently only take place if it is made of plastics such as PET or PE, for which there are established recycling paths.
2. Raw material recycling
Raw material recycling breaks down the plastic chemically. The processes may be hydrogenation, hydrolysis, pyrolysis and the blast furnace process. The large polymer chains are broken down into smaller molecular structures, producing monomers as well as base substances such as oils and gases. These substances can be used to create plastics or other products. In the German Environment Agency’s 2017 report on plastic waste, this is classified under other forms of material recycling. Their quantity in 2017 is indicated at 55,900 tonnes, making this the least widely used recycling process. Plastic packaging accounts for 30.5% of all plastic waste.
3. Energy recovery
An energy efficiency standard established by the EU Waste Framework Directive distinguishes between energy recovery and thermal disposal. For disposal, the efficiency is lower. Plastics can be incinerated in waste incinerators along with other materials without any treatment, even if the material could be recycled. When used as a substitute fuel, the plastic is prepared and incinerated to produce energy. The recyclate has a similar calorific value as a substitute fuel, e.g. hard coal. 1.1 million tonnes of plastics were used in 2017 as substitute fuel, 2.14 million tonnes in waste incineration plants. However, these figures refer to all plastic waste and not just plastic packaging.
The reasons for this are both the currently still low volume flows and the expected costs for setting up further sorting systems in addition to PET, PP, PE and PS. Biopolymers, which are only found in small quantities in waste streams, are currently classified as mixed plastics.
Whether or not mono-material recycling, i.e. recycling homogeneous batches of material, is economical depends on many factors, including the quantity, the revenue situation for the materials to be disposed of and recycled, the type of polymer, the market price for the corresponding recyclate, raw material prices, and the necessary sorting and processing technology.
It is already technically possible today to recycle other materials separately, especially PLA, by means of near-infrared spectroscopy if the existing plants are equipped accordingly. Reservations against the new plastics exist above all on the part of the disposal companies, who on the one hand fear costs for the installation of the new systems and on the other hand are critical of mixing them with conventional plastics. The following problems are feared: contamination of process water and an increase in biological oxygen demand (BOD value) due to washing processes, froth flotation, floating and sinking separations.
Pre-consumer recycling: The recycling of internal production waste has been practised for years in many companies for economic reasons. For example, companies recycle their PLA waste.
Post-consumer recycling: The material recycling of bio-based, chemically non-structurally identical plastics (e.g. PLA, cellulose-based plastics, starch blends) has not yet taken place on an industrial scale.
A good overview of the disposal and recycling of PLA is provided by the key findings of the BMEL joint project “PLA in the waste stream“.
As a rule, life cycle assessments are difficult to compare with each other because they are not based on uniform criteria. There are differences, for example, in the system boundaries (cradle to gate/grave etc.), in the impact categories considered (e.g. eutrophication, acidification) and, to some extent, the geographical reference frame.
In the life cycle assessments of bio-based plastics that have been publicly available to date, topics relevant to environmental assessment, such as biodiversity, indirect land use changes and the intensity of cultivation, have frequently not been included. On the other hand, there are also no publicly available life cycle assessments with regard to the different locations and extraction methods of global oil and gas production, as well as transport and processing for the provision of fossil-based plastics. Here is a comparison of fossil and bio-based PE and a criticism of the available life cycle assessments.
Nevertheless, trends can be identified in the overview of all existing assessments. A relatively uniform picture emerges, for example, when considering the respective advantages and disadvantages with regard to the following impact categories:
In the categories of greenhouse gas potential, fossil resource consumption and summer smog, bioplastics are almost always at an advantage compared with fossil-based plastics. In contrast, the assessments are mostly negative – with a few exceptions – in the categories of acidification and eutrophication. Here, the (mostly) conventional cultivation of the plants and the associated fertilisation or application of pest management agents is the main factor. In terms of land use and fresh water consumption, bio-based plastics naturally have higher consumption values than those produced from fossil raw materials. The associated environmental impacts, however, depend heavily on the type of land use (e.g. intensive use in monoculture versus organic farming) and on the local availability of water resources.
Organic farming could offset many of the negative factors that still exist here and would therefore be an interesting option for the future.
In general, it can be assumed that bio-based plastics do not currently perform better overall than conventional plastics in terms of their life cycle assessment. However, it must be taken into account that bioplastics production is still in its infancy and has great development potential, such that it will be possible to produce them much more efficiently in future. In addition, factors such as environmental damage caused by oil and gas extraction, transport and processing or negative influences on ecosystems in extraction areas (including effects from wars, etc.) have so far been systematically excluded from the analysis of conventional plastics. In contrast to bio-based plastics, no reference can be made to the exact source of raw materials or the type of extraction, and no assessment made.
In 2012, a comprehensive study entitledt “Study of the Environmental Impacts of Packagings Made of Biodegradable Plastics” was carried out by ifeu – Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung Heidelberg GmbH on behalf of the German Environment Agency. As part of the research project, biodegradable packaging materials were evaluated ecologically in order to make reliable statements on the ecological value of biodegradable plastics compared to conventional plastics. According to ifeu, bioplastic films did not show any overall ecological advantages over conventional films. According to the 2018 final report “Bio-based plastics for foodstuff packaging” by the institute ifeu and other authors, the following statement was made: “If the already identified potential for optimisation is fully implemented [e.g. reduction of film thickness, improvement in material production, energy savings through processability at low temperatures], bioplastic films could score at least equally or even better ecologically.”
One challenge for the future will be to use raw materials as effectively as possible. The focus must be on the environmental impacts in order to minimise the ecological effects of rapidly increasing quantities. Factors that have a positive impact on the life cycle assessment include a high yield per unit area, low agricultural inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, diesel), high process efficiency, low energy consumption, high material efficiency (little waste), optimum use of materials (e.g. low film thickness, etc.) and short transport distances.
According to the German Institute for Standardization (DIN SPEC 1206, DIN-Fachbericht CEN/TR 15932 [Technical Report]), bio-based plastics consist partly or completely of biomass, i.e. material of biological origin, e.g. renewable raw materials, with the exception of fossil and geological sources.
According to the American standard ASTM D 6866 and/or ISO 16620, Parts 1–3, the bio-based carbon content can be determined and certified analytically and by calculation.
The bio-based content of bioplastics can vary considerably – both between and within the respective bioplastics groups.
While between 14% (with a proportion of 25% recycled PET in the PlantBottleTM PET) and 30% (without recycled PET in the PlantBottleTM PET) of the PET in Coca-Cola’s PlantBottleTM is bio-based, bio-based PE, PLA and regenerated cellulose, for example, reach proportions of over 80%.
Manufacturers often do not provide detailed information about the proportion of bio-based raw materials on their websites or in product data sheets. If you would like to know the exact percentage, please ask the packaging manufacturer.
Depending on the desired requirements for the processability of the material and the properties of the finished product, different quantities of additives are added, as with all plastics. These can be obtained from the respective manufacturer.
In addition, the material database M-Base lists various manufacturers with their products and their material compositions.
Mixed plastics (blends) should be tested for all components. They may contain bio-based as well as mineral oil-based components.
2. Social compatibility
For the social compatibility criterion, the assessment refers to the existence of social standards in cultivation and processing. These can be internationally valid guidelines, national legal standards or private sector standards. The social standards of the country from which the raw material originates or in which the processing takes place are used as a basis for the assessment.
Different countries have different legal requirements for social standards and private-sector environmental and social standards. Listed below are applicable environmental and social standards, which to a greater or lesser extent also include social criteria. The following certifications are currently in use among monomer manufacturers and plastics converters: ISCC PLUS, Bonsucro, SEDEX– – management tool for suppliers, SFI – certified managed forestry, FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes).
ISCC PLUS monitors compliance with the Renewable Energy Directive (Directive 2009/28/EC) and the Biomass Sustainability Ordinance (BioNachV). It is recognised by the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE) and is applicable worldwide. It mainly focuses on greenhouse gas reduction, sustainable land management and protection of natural habitats. ISCC-certified biomass may not be produced in species-rich areas, on carbon-rich soils or in peat bogs. Furthermore, areas with a high nature conservation value are not permitted. ISCC PLUS also includes social standards.
Bonsucro is a global non-profit initiative that works to reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of sugar cane production. There are core criteria, of which 100% must be met, and other requirements, of which 80% must be met. The core criteria relate to the environmental aspects of soil, forest, chemicals and biodiversity and the social aspects of human and labour rights, which are largely based on the standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO standards).
The production standard can be viewed here.
SEDEX – Management tool for suppliers
Sedex is a non-profit organisation that promotes responsible and ethical business practices in global supply chains. Its main service is an online database that allows members to store, share and report information on four key areas (labour standards, health and safety, environmental ethics and business ethics). Users can evaluate and compare the efforts of their suppliers with the requirements of recognised standards, such as ILO standards, SA 8000, ISO14001 and industry-specific codes of conduct. A proprietary standard does not exist.
SFI – Certified managed forestry
SFI Inc. is an independent non-governmental organisation (NGO) that promotes sustainable forest management.
SFI works with conservation organisations, local communities, landowners and other organisations and individuals. The standard is based on principles that promote sustainable forest management. Where social aspects are concerned, it includes the following core conventions of the ILO standards: Freedom of association and trade unions, collective bargaining, anti-discrimination, etc. The standard is widely used in North America.
FSC – Forest Stewardship Council
FSC is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation founded in 1993 as a result of the “Environment and Development” conference in Rio de Janeiro. Today, the FSC is represented in over 80 countries with national working groups. The Council promotes environmentally friendly, socially beneficial and economically viable forest management. To this end, ten principles and 56 indicators have been developed on which the globally applicable FSC standards for forest management are based.
In order to ensure that products bearing the FSC label have actually been manufactured from the relevant raw materials, the FSC uses the instrument of product chain of custody (COC) certification: To this end, every company in the product chain, from the forest to the end customer, must establish an internal procedure that ensures that FSC-certified materials remain identifiable at all times.
PEFC – Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification
The content of PEFC, a certification system for sustainable forest management, is based on international resolutions of the follow-up conferences to the Rio Conference on the Environment. In Europe, these are
the criteria and indicators adopted by 37 nations in a pan-European process at the Ministerial Conferences on the Protection of Forests in Europe (Helsinki 1993, Lisbon 1998, Vienna 2003). In 2010, PEFC supplemented this catalogue of requirements with the following points: no conversion of natural forests into plantations, no genetically modified organisms, special protection of the rights of indigenous peoples, etc. This catalogue is part of the technical documentation of the PEFC Council International (PEFCC), in which the requirements for forest certification systems and standards are laid down. These must be fulfilled at the national level in order to be recognised by PEFCC.
Other forest certification systems are also recognised worldwide, provided that they are credible, voluntary and transparent and do not discriminate against forest owners.
The aspects covered include health protection, occupational safety and social affairs, which are based on the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
SEDEX is a non-profit organisation that promotes responsible and ethical business practices in global supply chains. Its main service is an online database that allows members to store, share and report information on four key areas (labour standards, health and safety, environmental ethics and business ethics). Users can evaluate and compare the efforts of their suppliers with the requirements of recognised standards, such as ILO standards, ETI Base Code, SA8000, ISO14001 and industry-specific codes of conduct. A proprietary standard does not exist.
GKV Code of Conduct
This Code of Conduct is sponsored by the German Association of the Plastics Converters (GKV). It deals with obligations in the areas of environmental protection, health and employment protection, child labour, forced labour, human rights, wages and working hours. 
OHSAS 18001 – Occupational Health & Safety Advisory Services
„[BS OHSAS 18001] (…) is a British standard that is closely based on ISO 9001 (quality) and ISO 14001 (environment) and defines requirements for professional occupational health and safety management. In 2018, DIN ISO 45001:2018 and the transition rules for the 3-year transition period from BS OHSAS 18001:2007 to DIN ISO 45001:2018 were adopted.
BS OHSAS 18001 is the best known and most important standard for occupational health and safety management and has international recognition.” SO 45001 complements the “predecessor standard” in some areas and is even closer to the ISO standards 9001:2015 and 14001:2015, further simplifying integration into existing management systems. The most important difference is that the new standard has a much broader definition of the circle of employees. In addition to permanent staff, companies must now also include measures for the protection of external employees, subcontractors and external contractors.
3. Safety and technology
In order to be able to estimate migration and interactions, extensive information material such as specifications, safety data sheets, analyses and application conditions as well as the packaged goods must be considered. Here, you will find the recommendations of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BFR) on materials in contact with food. Packaging materials that come into contact with food must comply with Regulation (EU) No. 10/2011 and other requirements mentioned in section 4.1.
In order to be able to assess risk potential, direct contact with the manufacturer and knowledge of the key components of the formulation of the packaging material are indispensable. A documented risk assessment must be carried out for the packaging material. In addition to the main constituents of the packaging material, constituents with a low proportion are also relevant, especially if a large quantity of packaging material is used in relation to its contents or if high migration potentials are known.
While a great deal of data is already available and practical applications are known for the traditional packaging materials made from renewable raw materials such as paper, application tests often have to be carried out for the newer packaging materials made from renewable raw materials such as PLA, PHA or starch blends because the data basis is too small. Highly extensive data is available for the drop-in solutions (biomass-based plastics such as bio-PE, bio-PP, bio-PET) as these have the same properties as traditional plastics.
The barrier properties of a packaging material are crucial for its application. These properties can be significantly influenced by blends, lamination or subsequent treatments. The contents as well as the processing and storage conditions must also be taken into account. Here, you will find an example from Taghleef Industries for a PLA film.
In order to minimise material expenditure and costs, it should be precisely defined which requirements the material must fulfil for the planned application.
The quality criterion encompasses the legal requirements for packaging material (section 4.1).
According to the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) standards, “quality” means compliance with the legal requirements and BfR specifications for packaging. Ecological and environmental aspects are important criteria for bio-based plastics. The packaged product results in specifications which the packaging material needs to fulfil and which should be precisely defined in advance. In many cases, excessive requirements lead to elaborate, expensive and unsustainable packaging. Bio-based packaging often offers advantages such as longer shelf life or biodegradability. Consumers demand transparent and sustainable packaging with the same usage properties.
Conditions of use of a packaging: Different product ranges are to be packaged on the same packaging machine. Bio-based packaging materials have a wide range of material properties and can be used for different packaging solutions. Before switching packaging materials, the company should first review the topic intensively and define the objectives and benefits.
An overview of the legal framework and the approval of new packaging can be obtained from the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL). The BfR supplements this information with the materials database “BfR-Recommendations on Food Contact Materials”. Information from the BfR Recommendations is relevant for many packaging materials.
Collaboration with the packaging manufacturer as well as very good knowledge of the product requirements are quintessential for determining a suitable packaging material.
The requirements of end consumers vary greatly and are sometimes contradictory. For example, a high level of convenience is desired, while at the same time, ecological packaging is expected. The packaged products should have a long shelf life, and at the same time, the packaging material should ideally be compostable. While there are hardly any critical questions asked by consumers in the case of traditional, mineral oil-based plastic packaging, there are sometimes very critical questions about packaging made from renewable raw materials:
- Are the ecological advantages measurable and independently verified?
- Is there competition with food production?
The consumer requirements sometimes result in contradictory specifications for the packaging manufacturer, e.g. biodegradability, recyclability, high barrier properties and high mechanical stability. In this case, the manufacturer must seek a compromise in order to find a solution that is acceptable in terms of price. Very often, marketing requirements dominate the selection of packaging.
It must be easy for the consumer to (re-)recognise the product visually after a packaging change or out of a wider range. Consumers are also increasingly buying according to visual criteria.
With its “ACCOUNTABILITY IS KEY – Environmental Communications Guide for Bioplastics“, European Bioplastics provides information on bio-based products, including communication on environmental and social aspects.
The usability of a packaging is an important aspect from the customers’ point of view. For example, in many areas, lighter plastic packaging for beverages has prevailed over heavier glass packaging. As more and more products are delivered via the internet, the stability of the packaging is also very important. Smaller portion sizes are becoming increasingly important for consumers.