Understanding the challenges with bioplastics in Canada

In fall 2020, the Canadian SIMBIO team convened the “Seeing the System” workshop over a series of three online sessions. We brought together over 20 participants who have varying roles and experiences with bioplastic packaging to better understand the environmental and social impacts of bioplastics using a systems-thinking approach. Here are some highlights from this workshop.

What do bioplastics mean to us?

Participants were asked to describe bioplastics using two words without using “bioplastic”, “compostable”, and “packaging”. The words have been arranged into a word cloud showcasing the most commonly encountered words. It’s interesting that words like challenging, complicated, confusing, and complex came up, indicating the tension in the bioplastics space.

What are the challenges with bioplastics?

Through a systems mapping exercise, we identified the following challenges:

  • Inconsistent labelling across products and discrepancy between what labels indicate (e.g. compostability) and what’s achievable in real-life for end-of-life management
  • Sourcing ethical and sustainable materials for bioplastic production that do not compete with other uses
  • A volatile and fast-moving industry where the risk of “locking in” to a certain resin, material, manufacturing process, or product may be too costly for a business if the market shifts away from what they invested in
  • Conflicts between using bioplastics for single-use items versus moving away from single-use items
  • Confusion amongst users of bioplastics on what to do with them at the end-of-life and lack of processing options in many jurisdictions

What needs to change?

The concept of a “donut economy” was identified as a guiding framework to determine what opportunities are appropriate for bioplastics. In a “donut economy”, there is a need to support an ethical social foundation, biological boundaries, and environmental sustainability across the entire system.

Environmental doughnut infographic
Source: World Economic Forum, 2017

To achieve a “donut economy” for bioplastics, these were some changes that were identified in our workshop:

  • Accepted, clear, and consistent standards
  • Accessible, transparent and credible information throughout the product life cycle
  • Compatibility between bioplastic products and end-of-life processing options
  • Ethical and sustainable bioplastic material sources
  • Supports and certainty for industry and business

Based on what we learned from this first workshop, we held a second workshop in the winter of 2021 called “Designing Solutions” to explore solutions that may be possible to shift the system. We’ll discuss the highlights from the second workshop in our next blog post!

Written by Belinda Li, based on summaries by Nadia Springle, Belinda Li, and Tamara Shulman