Biobased alternatives for products ranging from household items to cosmetics to biofuels are popping up in the marketplace. The biobased trend is also evident within the food sector, specifically relevant to packaging material for food items. This article will explore the journey of food packaging and the steps that manufacturers are taking as the industry transitions from depending on petroleum-based material to opting for biobased alternatives instead.
During phases of product development, product formulators and manufacturers of food packaging are relying on third-party analysis for biobased content results. By employing carbon-14 analysis, manufacturers have a way to quantify and optimize biobased content in product ingredient formulations, while limiting or phasing out the use of petrochemical-derived material. In addition, manufacturers can apply for biobased certifications for their finished products in order to receive eco-labels, allowing promotion of the use of plant-based packaging.
Why Switch to Biobased?
Biobased products are composed fully or partially of biomass material; this includes material derived from biological renewable resources that are available on a recurring basis, such as plants, wood residues, crop residues, sugarcane, and other agricultural resources. Biobased products are increasingly sought after due to the eco-friendly nature of the materials. For example, as companies in the food industry explore ways to limit and reduce their contribution to the global carbon dioxide footprint, they are opting for alternatives to mainstream plastics. This, in turn, is leading manufacturers to formulate packaging with biobased material, while at the same time driving distributors to sell and advertise these biomass-derived products.
According to surveys and studies, consumers are also interested in the transition to biobased. An international study conducted in April 2019 highlighted this preference, surveying 4,000 consumers in the United States, China, Finland, and Germany on food packaging preferences. The survey demonstrated that more than half of the respondents were willing to pay a higher price for renewable food packaging such as biobased packaging. In addition, out of the participants surveyed from the United States, 56% felt that food brands are mainly responsible for reducing the plastic waste that comes from food packaging. Such results are influencing manufacturers to transition to biobased material in an effort to address consumer demands.
On a global level, the biobased market throughout several sectors continues to grow. In 2017, the market was worth USD $8.81 billion, which is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 12.6% between 2018 and 2025. A growing preference for biobased material and packaging within the food industry is evident, and manufacturers are relying on testing methods such as carbon-14 to maximize the portion of biobased ingredients used in packaging formulations.
Carbon-14 for Product Formulations
Manufacturers developing biobased products such as food packaging and containers opt for plant-based material that is chemically identical to conventional packaging and able to provide the same functional properties. Carbon-14 testing is a key step in the product formulation process, providing results on biobased content of product material and allowing manufacturers to re-work their formulations based on the results.
Carbon-14 analysis is used as a biobased verification tool, because the amount of carbon-14 present in a given sample represents the amount of biobased content. Carbon-14 is a weakly radioactive isotope that is present in all living organisms. Once a living organism dies, however, the carbon-14 begins to decay at a rate of approximately 5,730 years, which is the half-life of carbon-14. Once the material is older than approximately 50,000 years, carbon-14 is absent in the fossil.
Manufacturers submit samples, which can be in solid, liquid, or gaseous form, to radiocarbon dating laboratories, such as ISO 17025-accredited Beta Analytic, in order to receive a percentage of biobased content in product ingredients. The analysis is performed in accordance with internationally developed standards such as ASTM D6866 and ISO 16620-2. ASTM D6866 is a standard developed to determine the percentage of biobased content as a fraction of the total organic carbon content in a sample. ISO 16620-2 measures the biobased carbon content as a fraction of total carbon content or total organic carbon content applicable to plastics, polymers, and other additives.
Once samples are received by the laboratory, they are prepped and pretreated as needed, and, once ready for analysis, they are inserted onto a wheel of an accelerator mass spectrometer instrument. This instrument is used to count the amount of carbon-14 present in the sample, yielding a result that represents the percentage of biobased content. Results may range from 0% biobased to 100% biobased. A sample that is 0% biobased is completely petrochemical-derived, while 100% biobased indicates it is fully composed of biomass-based sources. Lastly, a result anywhere between 0% and 100% biobased means the sample is a mixture of fossil fuel and renewable sources. This result allows manufacturers and product formulators to make adjustments, depending on the percentage of biobased content they are aiming for, and redevelop product formulas as they continue to test ingredients with carbon-14 analysis to achieve their goals of optimizing biobased ingredients and moving away from fossil fuel ingredients.
Once a biobased packaging formulation is finalized, manufacturers and product distributors opt to certify the packaging material so that the use of biobased ingredients is easily visible on the packaging. Within the bioproducts industry, the USDA BioPreferred Program includes a certification program to promote biobased products. This program allows consumers to distinguish sustainable options in the marketplace.
The USDA BioPreferred program includes a voluntary labeling initiative that enables companies with biobased products that have been tested by a third-party carbon-14 laboratory to apply for certification. In order to qualify for the certification, products must meet the standards and requirements of minimum biobased content, which vary based on the type of category the product falls under. The program includes a packaging category, which is broken down into more specific subcategories such as disposable containers, product packaging, non-durable films, semi-durable films, and shopping and trash bags. Each subcategory has a different requirement for minimum biobased content: 72%, 25%, 85%, 45%, and 22%, respectively. In addition, there is a category specifically for intermediates—plastic resins—which has a requirement of 22% biobased content for product eligibility.
If a product meets the requirements and certification is received, packaging products are sealed with a USDA Certified Biobased Product eco-label, which indicates the percentage of biobased content in a product. Biobased certifications and eco-labels act as verification that packaging material is derived from renewable biological material.
The preference for renewable and sustainable food packaging material is increasing over time among manufacturers, distributors, and consumers. To keep up with global demands for biobased food packaging material, manufacturers are working with carbon-14 laboratories to receive third-party verification of biobased content. This allows manufacturers to switch material formulations as needed in order to optimize the use of biobased material and limit dependence on fossil fuels, decreasing plastic waste and reducing the impact that the food packaging sector has on greenhouse gas levels. Once a product formulation is finalized, sustainability initiatives are demonstrated by applying for biobased certification schemes, allowing for greater transparency of product ingredients.