Plastic Industry Woes and a Potential Answer

Like many industries, the packaging industry is undergoing some serious change. According to a study undergone by the Center for International Environmental Law, (CIEL), per kilogram of plastic manufactured, 3.5kg of CO2 is deposited into the atmosphere, which only adds to the problem posed by its slow degradation. Recent developments in sustainable alternatives, by companies such as Sana Packaging, have demonstrated that the solution to the problem of plastics can be found in industrial hemp. Furthermore, industrial hemp has shown to be better for cardboard production than conventional wood pulp, due to its resilience and production output. However, the changes in these industries will inevitably ripple outwards and affect other industries, namely the shipping industry.

It is important to understand that while the idea of biodegradable packaging sounds great on paper, the logistical issues it poses are significant. Since bioplastics typically begin decomposing within six months, long-term storage of packaging materials becomes difficult or impossible. However, this issue can be mitigated through the use of bio-composite plastics.

Coca Cola Plant Bottle Program
Bio-Composite Plastics & The Solution

Bio-composite plastics are essentially organic plastics that are combined with non-organic plastics to make them more sustainable, while maintaining their integrity for a long period of time. One great example of bio-composite adoption is Coca Cola’s PlantBottle program, launched in 2009, which uses 30% bioplastic in its composite. This has allowed Coca Cola to lower its logistics environmental impact, through utilizing more sustainable packaging. However, since bio-composites still use synthetic polymers, they don’t fully biodegrade, and don’t provide a full-solution, rather they minimize impact.

Another potential solution to long term storage of bioplastics lies in mass production. If large quantities of bioplastic packaging can be produced on demand, then constant production can be used to offset degrading packaging. Industrial hemp has a short growth cycle of three to four months, which means its much easier to ensure constant availability of biomass for bioplastic production. The cellulose content in the hemp plant is extremely high at approximately 70%, which allows more bioplastic to be made from the biomass. Since producing bioplastic from hemp uses almost 45% less energy than producing conventional plastics[1], mass on demand production is further enabled. This all adds up to a crop that can produce plastic that’s more than twice as strong as conventional plastic1, while fulfilling the requirements for on demand production.

Finally, cost is also an important factor to consider when examining a plastic alternative for packaging. For the longest time, it has been far more expensive to produce bioplastics than conventional petroleum-based plastics, but that appears to be changing. In 2019, The Hemp Plastic Company began large scale commercial manufacturing of hemp bioplastics, enabling them to compete with conventional plastics in terms of cost. With bioplastics becoming an economically sensible alternative to conventional plastics, it’s only a matter of time before they become just as commonly used.

Biodegradable Plastic Pellets on HempFederation

Moving forward, it is important that we think ahead about how we ship and store goods in order to prepare for inevitable future of sustainable packaging!

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[1] Ali Asghar Modi, Rehmatullah Shahid, Muhammad Usman Saeed, Tanzila Younas. Hemp is the Future of Plastics 2018