The Bioplastics Feedstock Alliance (BFA), a group of brand owners including Coca-Cola Co. and Unilever NV, is assessing criteria for sustainable biomass production in the wake of data that suggests global demand for bio-based and biodegradable plastics is set to rise yearly by 19 percent.
Using biomass has two clear advantages, says the European Bioplastics Association -- renewability and availability. The organization states that in 2012 bioplastics output was 1.4 million metric tonnes but it estimates that this will grow to reach 6 million tonnes by 2017.
In November 2013, BFA was formed by some of the world's major consumer brands as a forum focused on increasing awareness around the environmental and social performance of potential feedstock sources for bio-based plastics.
BFA consists of eight founding companies: Coke, Danone, Ford Motor Co., H.J. Heinz Co., Nestlé, Nike Inc., Procter & Gamble Co., Unilever and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Erin Simon, manager of packaging and material science for WWF, said of the alliance: "The WWF supports the responsible management of natural resources while meeting the increasing demands of a growing population.
"As a part of this commitment, WWF has helped convene the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance in order to enable progress toward realising its important objectives to protect the future of nature."
Consumers want sustainable products
Coca-Cola backed this sentiment, with a representative telling European Plastics News: "Consumers across the world increasingly are looking for more sustainable products, including those made from plant-based plastics. With increasing rising market demand for food and fiber in the coming decades, responsible sourcing of these materials is the key to enabling sustainable growth.
"This alliance will go a long way in ensuring the responsible management of natural resources used to meet the growing demand for bioplastics."
The majority of bioplastics are currently derived from plants, such as corn, wheat and soy. The emergence of biofuel and a debate over land use has also highlighted worries over the potential for land competition between bioplastic feedstocks and crops.
However, the European Bioplastics Association, the organization representing the interests of Europe's bioplastics industry which states that it has a good link with the BFA, points out that land competition is not currently a concern.
"Only around 0.01 percent of the global agricultural area are used to grow feedstock for bioplastics. In contrast 97 percent are used as pastures to grow food and feed," said Kristy-Barbara Lange, the head of communication for European Bioplastics Association.
Looking to the future the BFA is aware of the problem and the WWF says bioplastics on their own will not create the competition, but a move from non-renewable resources, especially for fuel, paired with the need to feed a growing population will do so. It states sustainability of resources is key.
BFA says it is planning to monitor bioplastic feedstocks and therefore help to create strong, transparent supply chains.
"Currently, BFA members are looking at commonly accepted criteria for sustainable biomass production systems in order to understand how to identify and mitigate specific risks for particular feedstocks. Risks will vary depending on the feedstock and the region of the world and production management systems in use. By gaining greater visibility into their supply chains and identifying risks, BFA members can better address those opportunities for improvement," claimed WWF's Simon.
Coherent supply chain
John Williams, a consultant in the bio-based materials industry, says he feels positive about what BFA can potentially achieve, as long as it avoids becoming just a "talking shop". He sees the alliance eventually putting a stamp of approval on the supply chain, offering "...bioplastics producers a coherent supply chain with a direction on what the key brand owners are looking for, not only technically but logistically".
The European Bioplastics Association meanwhile says it hopes BFA will be able to provide a practical result that is fit not only for large global companies, but also for the small- and medium-sized companies that currently dominate the bioplastics industry.