On November 19th, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and eight companies – Coca-Cola, Danone, Ford, H.J. Heinz, Nestlé, Nike, P&G and Unilever – announced the launch of the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance (BFA). The aim of the BFA is “to support the responsible development of plastics made from plant material, helping to build a more sustainable future for the bioplastics industry,” according to the announcement. The eight founding companies and WWF have decided to join forces to address a major challenge for the future of their businesses and the environment: to make packaging more sustainable, and find alternatives to fossil energies to produce them.
Plant-based plastics are looking more and more like the solution to this challenge
, but it still involves a few questions. Will the plant cultures intended for the production of bioplastics create a resource that competes with agriculture in terms of land, water and energy? How can responsible, sustainable sourcing of the plant materials be developed? These questions are at the heart of the approach of the BFA, which intends to seek answers by bringing together various stakeholders:“leading experts from industry, academia and civil society to develop and support informed science, collaboration, education, and innovation” as regards bioplastics.
To understand the mission of the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance better, we put a few questions to Erin Simon, Manager for Packaging & Material Science at WWF. Erin Simon has 10 years’ experience in material science, design innovation, manufacturing, logistical aspects of packaging, etc. In moving from the private sector to WWF, she saw it as an opportunity to drive change across the industry, and not just within one organisation.
How does WWF integrate packaging-related issues into its work?
While preserving species is what we are known for, WWF’s broader mission includes preserving the world’s most ecologically diverse regions –places that are not only rich in biodiversity but also provide us with major commodities in food, fuel, and fibre. This all relates to packaging, with many of these commodities protected by packaging, or used in the creation of packaging materials.
Packaging comes in different forms and from different materials – each with potential impacts – combining to add value. Looking at packaging sustainability is often about considering a set of trade-offs within a product’s value chain. It is important to consider the entire system when making decisions, from the materials used to make the packaging to what the packaging will hold, how it will be transported, and how it will be discarded or reused. WWF works with corporate partners to strategically address their packaging work streams by focusing on developing transparency in the supply chain for the main packaging materials.
How did the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance originate?
WWF supports protecting natural resources through scientifically informed, sustainable choices for materials. Critical to making these decisions is understanding the impacts and advantages of the material in question. When leading brands asked WWF to help them decide which bioplastic technologies to invest in, WWF saw the opportunity to help lead this progress in a positive manner. We had our first meeting with the eight partner companies in January 2011, and in June 2012 we formalised our commitment.
How do you interpret the fact that corporate companies are expressing interest in bioplastics?
Competition and the reduced availability of fossil-based plastics are already a reality. The development of technology and infrastructures for bio-based solutions to replace fossil-based solutions will take time and resources.
Establishing responsible sourcing and design strategies from the beginning of this development process will help to ensure longer term, more viable, holistic solutions for the future.
I am very excited that these companies are coming together; it is not typical to see this kind of collaboration, and WWF sees it as a great mechanism to support our mission.
What will be the specific role of WWF with the BFA?
WWF’s role in the BFA is principally organisational. We will identify the issues around bioplastic feedstocks and factor in the viewpoints of leading scientists, conservationists, and agriculture experts to drive innovative solutions that will work in the long-term. Above all, as we work to decrease our dependency on oil, we will make sure that we are preserving the world’s most precious places and species.
What work will be carried out through the alliance in practical terms?
BFA seeks to evaluate the diversity of potential bioplastic feedstocks using state of the art science to ensure a common understanding of current and potential future sustainability improvements that each may offer. We will continuously monitor their development against our expectations for improvement and help drive positive change on a large scale. As an Alliance, we have yet to decide what our role in the bioplastics industry will be. For now,
we are proud to announce that eight companies are willing to work together to tackle these tough issues.
The next step will be what we do beyond the research.
What do you personally expect from the BFA?
I see the bioplastics industry as a whole having the challenging job of following in the footsteps of the biofuel industry, as there have been debates around the same issues for years [to learn more about this, you can read our article on biofuel here – ed.]. I would hope that the bioplastics industry can learn from this on-going dialogue and implement improved solutions as a result. Well-known, respected brands are participating in the BFA. This collective power has the ability to lead an industry through this complex environment, move the dialogue along and then, as a result, drive progress and change. That is what I would hope for.
Photo: © Matee Nuserm