Story | 06/27/2024 10:40:14 | 5 min Read time

True or false: Bio-based plastic has a smaller carbon footprint than fossil-based plastic

The answer: True – or it depends. It is essential to calculate the environmental impacts across the entire life cycle.

Conventional plastic is made from fossil oil and emits greenhouse gases throughout its entire life cycle, from extraction to disposal. In 2019, plastics generated 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for approximately 3 percent of all global emissions.

Using renewable feedstock, such as wood or wheat straw, for the production of plastic doesn’t automatically result in a smaller carbon footprint. To make an accurate assessment, one needs to consider the entire life cycle of a packaging material, for example. Just like when producing fossil-based plastic, each step in the production chain is ideally optimised for efficiency to reduce the carbon footprint.

Optimising the production process of new solutions, such as bio-based plastics, takes time. However, the use of renewable materials doesn't contribute to nature's own carbon cycle in the way that fossil-based materials do.

Using renewable feedstock, such as wood or wheat straw, for the production of plastic doesn’t automatically result in a smaller carbon footprint.

Are there any examples of bio-based plastic packaging having smaller emissions?

As much as 90 percent of the emissions of conventional plastic comes from production and conversion from fossil fuels. Bio-based plastics are no exception – it takes natural resources and energy to produce them too. 

Here life cycle assessment (LCA) is an essential asset. LCA is a technique for assessing environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with a product or service.

Take, for example UPM Raflatac’s label material Forest Film. Based on UPM Raflatac's lifecycle assessment service Label Life, this wood-based plastic label material can bring 15–25 percent emission reduction in CO2 (excluding biogenic carbon) when switching from fossil-based label and considering the entire lifecycle of the label. 

Or take beverage cartons – replacing the fossil-based coating with polyethylene from wood-based naphtha reduced the carton’s carbon footprint also by 20 percent.

As much as 90 percent of the emissions of conventional plastic comes from production and conversion from fossil fuels.

How do I reduce the carbon footprint of my bio-based packaging?

Put simply: Just like with any packaging, using only what is needed is essential. Less material means less environmental impact and lower product related emissions. 

Every step in the production chain counts; from raw materials to refining, transport, and end of life. What kind of raw material is used? Is it so called first generation feedstock, which means edible crops? Or is it second generation biomass like wood or byproducts of industrial or agricultural process that don’t compete with food production? 

The production chain is only as strong as its links. Is every partner and supplier working rigorously to curb the emissions – and do they have a plan for this?

UPM takes care not to waste any biomass in production. Several solutions are based on byproducts of pulp production to begin with. UPM locates production facilities, such as the new biorefinery in Leuna, Germany, close to the raw material sources to optimise transport and integration into the existing infrastructure to maximise the value of the natural resource. To cut emissions, the most efficient technology and, in the best case, only renewable energy are used.

Less material means less environmental impact and lower product related emissions.

How can I tell if claims about the packaging material are greenwashing or the real thing? 

The regulation on so called green claims is becoming stricter and stricter, especially in the European Union. Any sustainability claim has to be specific and relevant, and requires third-party verification and a robust system to support it. For instance, UPM Raflatac’s LCA calculation process is validated by the leading international assurance service provider, DEKRA.

UPM uses and promotes recognised forest certification schemes such as FSC™ (FSC N003385) and PEFC (PEFC/02-44-41). The target is to increase the use of certified wood so that all sourced wood will be certified by 2030. All UPM-owned forests are certified.

Another example of work currently being done within UPM: starting from year 2024, all paper sourced by UPM Raflatac is certified under a credible third-party certification scheme.

Any sustainability claim has to be specific and relevant, and requires third-party verification and a robust system to support it.

Why is it important to replace fossils with bio-based materials in packaging?

What is important in the big picture is that using renewable materials doesn’t add anything to nature’s own carbon cycle, like fossil-based materials do. Plants absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, whereas the use of fossil materials releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere incredibly faster than the time it takes for the carbon to be sequestered in oil or natural gas.

However, as the use of renewable resources grows, we need to ensure that they originate from verified sustainable sources.

As the use of renewable resources grows, we need to ensure that they originate from verified sustainable sources.
 

These UPM experts were interviewed for the story: Satu Leppänen, Gerd Unkelbach

 

*The term bio-based is used here for all materials that are produced using substances derived from living organisms such as plants (source: Collins Dictionary). Many bio-based or bio-attributed plastics are chemically identical to fossil-based plastic and are not, for example, biodegradable.

 
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