Sustainable material terminology can be confusing. The terms can take on different meanings depending on the product and/or the context. The most common terms we run into or relate to the custom materials we print and custom convert are detailed below.
Biobased refers to the renewable original source of the material content, as opposed to non-renewable fossil fuel-based content. Plants are the most prominent source for biobased plastic materials in the current marketplace. In general, plant-based plastics have a more carbon-neutral lifecycle, as the carbon exhausted into the atmosphere during production and transport is offset by the carbon absorbed by the plant used to make the material. We offer biobased materials that are recyclable at the end of life.
Bioplastics is a broad term representing two independent concepts: biobased and compostable. Thinking of bioplastics in terms of the beginning and end-of-life of the package clarifies the meaning of bioplastics in any context. There are four possible combinations:
- Can a material be both biobased and compostable? Yes, and it is considered a bioplastic. The material is made either entirely or partially from plants or other renewable sources AND is also compostable at the end-of-life.
- Can a material be biobased and not compostable? Yes, and it is considered a bioplastic. The material is made either entirely or partially from plants or other renewable sources AND is NOT compostable at the end-of-life.
- Can a material be non-biobased and compostable? Yes, and it is considered a bioplastic. The material is made from fossil fuel-based sources or other non-renewable sources AND is compostable at the end-of-life.
- Can a material be non-biobased and non-compostable? Yes, but it is not a bioplastic. The material is made from fossil fuel-based sources or other non-renewable sources AND is NOT compostable at the end-of-life. Many of the existing plastic bags you see today in the market are non-biobased and non-compostable.
The four scenarios above refer to vastly different materials. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 all fit under the broad definition of “bioplastic.” Number 4 does not. We offer materials that fit numbers 1, 2 and 4 above.
Biodegradable In its simplest form, it means an item can break down into natural materials in the environment without causing harm. The term does not define the timing of breakdown. Without a defined time frame for degradation, biodegradable plastic has limited meaning. The term can have a negative effect on the environment as some may be misled to thinking disposal can occur naturally without harm. The potential harm lies in long time periods of degradation. Larger plastic pieces breakdown over time into smaller pieces and eventually into microplastics. Throughout the time it takes to breakdown, wildlife, nature’s cycles and food chains are exposed to plastic in the natural world.
As it refers to plastic, the word compostable is a more definitive term as it has a set time frame for breaking down in a defined place of disposal. We do not offer biodegradable materials. We do offer compostable materials.
BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) Organization that provides certification for compostable materials. From the BPI website (www.bpiworld.org), it states their goal is to verify “products and packaging will successfully break down in professionally managed composting facilities, without harming the quality of the compost”. ASTM D6400 is the primary composting standard in the United States.
Circular Economy Economic system which views all things as a resource for something else. There is no waste in a circular system. As it applies to plastics, renewable resources (example plants) are used at creation and the material is not lost to the economy at the end of life as it is recovered in the recycling or organic waste stream. A circular economy is in contrast to the linear economy which dominates our society today. A linear system, takes, makes and disposes of items and thus resources fall out of the economy.
Our goal is to support the proliferation of circular materials. Post-Consumer recycled content material uses waste from the consumer waste stream to make new material. Compostable material breaks-down in the soil to allow other things to be made. Both are examples of materials that promote a circular flow of resources.
Compostable refers to how the material acts at the end-of-life. Compostability is based on chemical structure, not the original source. Certified compostable material has a defined measure for degradability and an implied action necessary for providing conditions for composting. Certified compostable content breaks down into water, carbon dioxide and a soil conditioner (compost) in a set timeframe, in the proper facility at the end-of-life. Third-party certification measures the material against defined composting standards in order to provide clarity to the consumer. ASTM D6400 in the United States and EN13432 in Europe set the two primary composting standards. The circularity of compostable material lies in its ability to fully return to the earth to grow new things. We offer clear certified compostable material.
Down-cycle refers to recycling an item and turning it into lower-quality or lower-functionality products, such as high-quality plastic packaging down-cycled into hard plastic fencing. Down-cycling still most likely leads to ultimate disposal in a landfill.
Linear economy refers to “Take–Make–Waste” economy. Resources are taken from the earth, made into product & disposed of at the end of life. (Typically in a landfill or incineration)
Microplastics Defined as small pieces of plastic (less than 5 mm) found in the environment as a consequence of plastic pollution. Some sources include plastic debris degrading into smaller pieces, human cosmetics, personal hygiene products (toothpaste, shower gel, face-wash). laundering clothes with synthetic fibers, car tires and discarded fishing gear.
Post Consumer Recycled Content (PCR) To make PCR content, waste is pulled from the consumer waste stream and incorporated into the making of new material. A good example is milk jugs being recovered after use and repurposed into flexible materials for making custom packaging. PCR plastic has little performance difference and some aesthetic difference from virgin material. As PCR content increases, clarity of the material generally decreases. In the future, the hope is the purity of recycled materials continues to get better to allow for increasing amounts of PCR content without sacrificing appearance. PCR helps the end of life problem with plastics as it provides an avenue for plastics to flow back into new products and avoid falling out of the economy. We offer PCR in both clear and white.
Post Industrial Recycled Content (PIR) Post-industrial recycled content takes waste from the raw-material manufacturer and remakes new plastic. Post-industrial material mimics virgin film to a high degree, in terms of cost and performance, but it does not help solve end-of-life problems for packaging, as most of this plastic packaging is ultimately found in the consumer waste stream. We offer PIR in both clear and white.
Recyclable Refers to what can be done with the plastic at the end of life. If the plastic is 100% recyclable, then it can be recovered at the end of life and made into new things. Most curbside recycling services do not take packaging mainly because sorting equipment is not able to handle flexible plastics. More modern equipment can. For now, the best means to recycle plastic bags is at the in-store drop off bin.
Non-recyclable packaging items tend to be associated with disparate materials laminated together to optimize the package appeal and/or shelf-life. For example, when paper and plastics are “glued together”, there is not an immediate viable waste stream unless they are chemically separated.
Reuse Whenever possible, reusing a bag or resource over and over is by far the best means of limiting environmental impact.
Waste Streams There is no such thing as “throw away”. Everything winds up somewhere. Waste streams refer to the potential path a product follows to its ultimate end of life. At this time, there are 5 waste streams any item including plastics can follow: recycling, composting, landfill, incineration or leakage into the environment. We want to avoid the last three thus leaving only two options at the end of life: recycle or compost (organic).
Up-cycle Up-cycling converts recovered materials into new products of better quality and or function. Up-cycling elongates the useful life of materials.