‘Mass Balance’ should be word of the year in 2023

It has become fashionable for dictionaries to announce their most popular new word of the year. 2022 gave us ‘permacrisis’, ‘goblin mode’ and ‘gaslighting’, amongst others. For anyone interested in the sustainability of the raw materials that go into our food and packaging, then ‘mass balance’ deserves a similar status. In the near future these words will be appearing more on labels alongside recycled or biobased content claims, even though they are difficult to understand. In contrast, most people think they know the meaning of the terms ‘mix’ and ‘mixed’ next to sustainability logos, but they probably don’t.  Now the European Union has decided to bring in new measures to ensure that claims, labels and logos which imply that products are better for the environment, are accurate

In physics and chemistry, a mass balance is a way of accounting for material entering and leaving a system in order to identify unknown or difficult to measure species. But the term has been repurposed by brand owners and manufacturers, as they adapt to the transition from conventional  raw materials to recycled and sustainable ones. So, they might purchase, for example, both sustainably certified palm oil and conventional palm oil for a fried snack or both petrochemical and bio-based raw materials for plastic containers. But it is not economic to separate the different types during processing, storage and transportation, so they are processed together, and the sustainable material becomes distributed and diluted as it passes through world scale facilities. The producer at the end of the supply chain has a certain quantity  or mass of the responsible material allocated to them. The operators doing the processing and storage guarantee that, at the end of a specific period, often three months, they have bought enough of the responsible raw material to account for the allocations they have sold. This system is being applied to a wide variety of supply chains from cotton to chemicals, car components and beverage cans. 

This situation is often described as ‘mixed’ or ‘mix’ but this is misleading as it implies the product contains a mixture.  But there is no guarantee that any of the sustainable component is physically present in the product labelled 'mix'. The term ‘mass balance’ is the one manufacturers should use to describe this coprocessing along the supply chain. 

But this is not just about words, important though they are. If consumers understand more about what is behind mass balance and mix claims, then they will start asking for higher concentrations of sustainable or recycled material in what they are buying. Pressure from customers would prompt brand owners to set up more segregated supply chains with some processing units dedicated to the products needed for the circular and low carbon economy. Recycled plastics and metals, biobased chemicals and sustainably produced commodities are more expensive to produce than their conventional or virgin counterparts. There is often a restricted supply. So companies have excuses as to why they can’t buy more. An additional push from consumers and the authorities  is needed to get these new technologies scaled up and mainstream. Public understanding of the process will help.

There will be other changes too. The EU measures are designed to provide consumers with information that they can trust. Claims which promise climate neutrality, responsible production, no deforestation and other environmental benefits, will have to be backed up by evidence. Sustainability related logos must be from a third-party verification scheme that is open and transparent,  which will provide a boost to traditional multi-stakeholder sustainability schemes. So, expect a decrease in brand specific sustainability logos where checks are by in-house auditors. On the other hand, claims may become more difficult to understand as companies strive for accuracy. Hopefully consumers, presented with a term they don’t understand, will be motivated to look for the meaning. Their searches might just drive the selection of a more worthwhile word of the year in 2023.

Watch a short video on mass balance in plant-based packaging

Published: 31 January 23

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