Authors: Elisa Uhlig, Anna Sadzik and Mara Strenger, Sustainable Packaging Institute SPI, Albstadt-Sigmaringen University

In December 2023, the EU-funded projet BioSupPack organised a workshop alongside the European Bioplastics Conference – EBC23 on the topics: “The next challenge in packaging: How to choose between different bio-based polymers? How can Life Cycle Assessments be used to evaluate their ecological sustainability? What are the challenges on sustainability assessments for bio-based polymers and how can they be overcome?”. With an open discussion with several participants, the workshop was led by BioSupPack’s project experts, Mara Strenger, Anna Sadzik, Elisa Uhlig (ASU) with the support of Chiara Bearzotti and Estela Lopez-Hermoso (European Bioplastics).

The BioSupPack project aims to develop new, competitive, high-performance and biobased packaging solutions based on Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), obtained from brewer’s spent grains, and to produce them on a large scale. As part of the project, a workshop was held to identify the challenges in implementing sustainability assessments for biobased polymers and how to overcome them. The challenges (in italics) have been identified per category. Potential solutions were suggested during the interactive workshop and are provided in the text below.

General factors of sustainability assessment: Sustainability assessments are time-consuming, costly snapshots and isolated observations. The initial investment in resources may be higher, but the payback is worth it as the results can lead to longer-term reductions in resource use, e.g. by identifying hot spots along the life cycle and identifying opportunities for improvement. Less time-consuming activities are for instance screening assessments or hotspot analyses.

Methodology: Sustainability assessments are often based on assumptions. Assumptions should be as close to reality as possible (e.g., for packaging, consider its functionality in terms of product protection) and documented transparently. The methodology of social life cycle assessment, in particular, is still in its early stages. New regulations such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) are raising awareness of social issues and forcing companies to address them. Intensive research is also proceeding in this area.

Standardization and comparison: Existing standards such as ISO 14040 and 14044 only provide a broad framework, which can lead to misunderstandings between users and a lack of comparability of results. A solution could be the development of harmonized standards for a consistent and clear nomenclature that can be easily understood. These standards should cover, e.g. material functionality and the treatment of biogenic carbon.

Data quality and availability: Lack of (reliable primary) data leads to unreliable results. Wherever possible, it is advisable to collect and use primary data. An infrastructure for data collection needs to be created, e.g., by collaborating with actors along the value chain. Data collectors need to be sensitised through training. General legislation and/or incentive systems could help to collect data.

Land use, cultivation and raw material: Producing food and bio-based polymers competes for space. Production