Bioplastics: new approaches and new certifications

The trend for sustainability certification of bioplastics picked up noticeably in 2019 and there is every indication that it will continue in 2020. And it is not just the traditional Schemes that are certifying bioplastics; there are new comers too.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has declared its support for bioplastics providing they are from sustainable production.  The Foundation, a key driver for the Circular Economy, has endorsed renewable feedstock, when recycled material can’t be used. And there is certainly a lack of mechanically recycled plastic for high specification applications, opening the door to alternatives.

Producers are increasingly focusing on certifying the sustainability of the biomass going into their bioplastics. Consumers and brand owners are responding to the extra assurance that sustainability certification brings and the industry is enjoying increased sales. Sustainability Schemes have responded by promoting certification options that allow the volume of sustainable bioplastic on the market to be increased without a large capital outlay. These certification modules allow conventional polymer producers to coproduce bio and fossil plastics in their existing facilities. The new approach allows the naphtha cracker, the backbone of the petrochemicals industry, to be repurposed to serve both the bio and circular economies. 

 The certification of coprocessing relies on a mass balance approach and the allocation of biobased carbon containing molecules to a particular customer.  Some Schemes also accept feedstock derived from waste plastic, allowing a variety of raw materials to be coprocessed in the same unit. So chemically recycled and biobased polymers can both be produced together.  

The quantities of coprocessed biomass have so far been limited and it has been physically distributed over many different products. So the resulting polymers have no little or no measureable biogenic carbon content. Companies have come up with different names to describe these products such as ‘bio-attributed’ and ‘biomass balanced’, to be clear to consumers that a coprocessing approach has been used. Sustainability schemes are strict about the claims that can be made on a mass balanced bioplastic. Explanations must be provided so that no accusations of greenwashing can be made.

Announcements in 2019 confirmed that more polymer manufacturers are using certification to show that the biomass is sustainably sourced and that the mass balance accounting has been carried out correctly. TRUCIRCLE™ from SABIC has ISCC PLUS certification.  Borealis/Neste and Dow/UPM have also chosen ISCC PLUS for their bioplastics. Biovyn, the latest new product from Inovyn is certified by RSB, whereas BASF will be opting for REDcert. These producers cover the majority of polymers in general use.  

All of the Schemes have strict rules for biomass sourcing which excludes deforestation and adverse impacts on the environment. However, differences in the approach to mass balancing allows operators more or less freedom to sell certified product from one site or country whilst producing it elsewhere. The reconciliation of input biomass, or waste plastic with output biobased or recycled content also differs between the Schemes.

The industry is also continuing to build new standalone facilities making bioplastics with 100% biobased content. A number of these products are compostable which makes them eminently suitable for certain applications. Takeaway containers, tea bags and coffee capsules are all discarded with food waste still in the packaging, so it makes sense to compost the packaging with the food waste. These producers too are showing that their raw materials and production processes are sustainable. NatureWorks has committed to increase ISCC PLUS certified corn input into their PLA (polylactic acid) bioplastic from 50 % to 100%. Total-Corbion has opted for Bonsucro certification for the sugar that goes into their PLA. While Braskem has both ISCC PLUS and Bonsucro for its completely biobased polyethylene. 

Consumers concerned about the affect of farming on the environment are looking for products and certifications that put their concerns centre stage. Millennials who favour renewable, natural and plant-based materials are also attracted to compostable packaging including bioplastics. So brands offering organic and vegan options may be looking for GMO free certification for their bio-based packaging. Compostable bioplastics are also ‘plastic free’ and ‘the opposite of plastic’ according to A Plastic Planet, the organisation which campaigns for a plastic-free aisle in every supermarket. They have launched the first Plastic Free Trust Mark. Early adopters include UK supermarket Iceland, Dutch retailer Ekoplaza, the tea brand teapigs and Curious Bacon.

Durable bioplastics have a role to play in storing carbon consumed during the growth of their plant-based raw materials. Just recently the European Commission acknowledged the importance of carbon removal from the atmosphere.   A certification of carbon removals is proposed in the recently updated Circular Economy Action Plan. 

So, as we enter the next decade with sustainability certification for bioplastics on the increase, it is definitely ‘in with the new’ while still keeping on with ‘the old’.


First published in Bio Market Insights; updated 14th March 2020


Published: 11 February 20

Back to news list