What I Learned at a Bioplastics Conference

About a month ago I attended the India Bioplastics Summit hosted by a company called Energy Alternatives India (EAI). It was the first time I had been to a non academic conference and although I was expecting it to be heavy with industry types, I didn’t expect it to be so uncritical of a new substance that has hardly been tested enough to know whether it’s safe for humans or the rest of the planet.

EAI handed out a booklet when you register, which I promptly read over before the meeting began. And there are a number of concerns that I have which were left out. These are:

  • So far bioplastics can only be composted in an industrial scale facility. Where are those facilities in India? How can ordinary consumers be sure that bioplastics get composted in those places? Do we need a new waste stream for bioplastics? Who will handle the segregation and composting of these materials?
  • Biodegradable plastics that break down into tiny particles still pollute and animals – whether fish or cows or dogs – ingest them. But as long as it’s gone and we don’t see it, it doesn’t seem to worry anyone.
  • Bioplastics made out of food products like sugar cane (bagasse) or corn, signal a serious concern about converting farm land over to the production of cash crops for bioplastics. What will happen to India’s food security when chunks of land are converted from food to food grown for bioplastics? What will happen to the soil under this new monoculture of farming for plastic?
  • What are the long-term health consequences of using bioplastics and its close proximity to food and beverages? Have sufficient studies been done by medical researchers who are not on the payroll of the bioplastics industry?

Those are a lot of big concerns to leave out of a pamphlet like this one.

The conference began with an overview of the potential sales opportunities of bioplastics. One thing I noticed on the first day – and this continued until the end of the second day when I raised this as a question: almost everyone used the words biodegradable and compostable interchangeably.

  • biodegradable = a biological agent like water or sunlight breaks down an object into smaller parts or pieces, which never breaks down into fine enough matter to become soil
  • compostable = a natural object, say a banana peel, that decomposes naturally with or without the help of any external agents to become soil

There were large MNCs speaking at the event like BASF and Total Corbion, as well as academics (who seemed to be there solely to line up their lab to do “research” for companies on their bioplastics) and NGOs and small start ups interested in bettering the environment. But the panelists, and most of the audience, was so star struck by the idea of quick fix for plastic that they didn’t think critically about what they were being fed.

For example, when I asked about the issue of food security if plants for bioplastics replace food, I was told by a panelist from BASF: ‘Total bioplastics of arable land is .0226% of what is arable in 2016. Even if we convert entire plastics to bioplastics it would only take up 4-5% of the land. Bioplastics will also help sustain farmers because they can divide the land between bioplastics and food production’. His “research” – including the image below – came from a paper authored by European Bioplastics, clearly an organisation that is financially invested in seeing bioplastics do well on the market.

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 1.17.31 PM

Of course the image is misleading and doesn’t really suggest anything tangible about how planting for bioplastics will affect food security. If the source material for bioplastics is starch from grain it is a problem because, as with biofuels, you’re using land on which food should be grown to grow raw materials for plastics instead. We only need to look to how biofuels has affect food security to get a sense of how bioplastics will necessarily follow suit – and it already is:

Bioplastics compete for land with biofuels and food crops. About 200,000 tonnes of bioplastics were produced last year, requiring 250,000-350,000 tonnes of crops. The industry is forecast to need several million acres of farmland within four years.

And what we know about how the world works is the increase in the desire for bioplastics and biofuel in the global north will mean using the farmland of the global south to meet those needs, which will most certainly cut into the food security of those countries whether it’s Mozambique or India as former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter tells us:

The Institute for European Environmental Policy (pdf) estimated that, to reach its initial 10% target for renewables in transport fuels, the EU would have had to import 41% of its biodiesel and 50% of its ethanol needs by 2020. So even with lower targets, dependence on imports – and therefore pressure on the structure of farming systems in the global south – are always the likely outcome of EU biofuel mandates.

Some of this pressure on the global south that de Schutter talks about has been attributed to the food crisis in 2008 specifically because of the land that had been shifted for biofuel use. Now just imagine: what will happen when it’s shifted for bioplastic too? Indeed, one could argue that this is already happening and is related to increasing prices of vegetables.

On the second day of the conference, this same man from BASF shared another way he wants to intervene in farming – and that is by producing bioplastic film for mulch farming. This is a horrible practise that is being used whereby farmers place large sheets of plastic onto the land to hold in moisture, which reduces water use. Of course, the plastic becomes a problem when it breaks down and becomes difficult to collect in the field – but so to will bioplastic as in either case pieces of it will become part of the soil and we don’t yet know what plastic in the soil will do to our food. But these people want to allow bioplastic to just biodegrade into the soil.

When I questioned him about this practise and product, I tried to talk about using systems thinking to address a situation. In this case that would lead us to question why the farmer would use the mulch film in the first place. And the solution to this problem is so simple: plant multiple crops in a field and use agroforestry or plant trees (which has leaves to function like mulch and keep the water in the soil) in and around the field to help keep the water in the soil as they do in places like West Bengal:

The benefits of agroforestry are widely acknowledged, including by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In its manual “Agroforestry in rice-production landscapes in Southeast Asia,” it states: “Integrating trees into rice-production landscapes [helps] reduce temperatures and improve infiltration of water into the soil, store more carbon and diversify farm production, which lowers both climate and market risks. This adds up to greater adaptability and resilience not only for individual farmers and communities but also their environments.”

Farming naturally, as Indians have done for centuries, creates more water retention and it increases yields. Doesn’t seem like more plastic is needed. It does seem like returning to traditional practises is required. But BASF didn’t like this idea – they believe that their work in China has increased yields. Not only that, those who have done research on bioplastics left in the field have not conclusively determined that it is safe for the soil. Moreover, the one farmer who presented at this conference tests products for BASF so was far from an independent and reliable narrator.

Ultimately, the problem throughout the whole conference is that everyone is hot to make money out of replacing one problem with a new one rather than looking at the entire system and see what we’re doing that’s wrong.

One of the vendors at the conference was sharing his corn starch bags with us. My husband had brought one home one day and it says it is compostable on the bag so I put it in our Kambha and decided to see what would happen. This was at least 9 months ago and the photos show what has happened over the course of those months. It degrades, but it certainly isn’t composting.

When I questioned this man about his bags and whether they’ve tested the effects on animals who consume them he said he hasn’t run such tests. Another panelist (both of these people are Indian) got angry with me asking, “Why are there cows running around the streets in the first place?” as if that answered my question as opposed to revealing his inability to answer it. Another one of these men with their biodegradable plastic bags was selling it as a liner for your compost bin, something I didn’t understand in the Indian context where we are composting  in situ. But, my niece told me that in the U.S., where municipalities are composting and go house to house collecting it, these bags come in handy.

There were other smaller companies peddling their new bioplastic products like Aakar’s menstrual pads (and when I asked why no one thought of the more sustainable cloth pads form places like EcoFemme people appeared dumbfounded).  There were also lots of people making disposable plates out of bagasse or Areca, but the problem is most of them wrap their products in plastic. Only Astu Eco wraps their Areca plates in recycled paper. There was also Green Bug, a company making trash bin liners that are made out of recycled newspapers – and it’s a livelihood building project for women.

What I learned at this meeting is that there is not enough research yet to know what the long-term consequences of bioplastics will be and we should act cautiously. And we should still continue to reduce what we consume, which is the only real step we can take as consumers.

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2 thoughts on “What I Learned at a Bioplastics Conference

  1. hey akka! I think this is where the circular economy comes in. That we don’t downgrade a particular material by trying to make it biodegradable/compostable. Rather we create systems in which materials can be used over and over again to make products, with the help of proper recovery systems. Perhaps shifting ownership models to subscription rather than just owning it completely. My guess is that there is enough plastic that exists that we need to recover from the oceans and dumps and figure out how we may put them back in closed loop systems. And i totally agree with you about changing consumer behavior, because most of it is not a need, but just a way for companies to continue to sell more things to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re right, Tanu. This is an important place to think about the circular economy. And it is quite likely that we have enough plastic to last a few lifetimes. We just need to have a system where we can collect it for reuse and recycling in a systematic way. EPR or extended producer responsibility could play an important role in that.

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