While the growing ecological awareness and changing consumer demands are leading to a boom in the development and sales of more sustainable products with a reduced environmental footprint such as bioplastics, there are a few persistent misconceptions about the nature and benefits of bioplastics that need to be addressed by better information and education.
BiNa, an interdisciplinary research project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is currently looking into the public perception of bioplastics in Germany as well as the opportunities and obstacles of communicating the properties and benefits of bioplastics. The aim of the project is to draw conclusions and recommendations on how to better communicate and inform the public in order to allow bioplastics to unfold their full potential as part of the green economy in Germany.
The preliminary results of the public survey and qualitative focus groups are providing a good first glance at the current public perception of bioplastics and challenges that we will have to overcome. Julia-Maria Blesin, Research Assistant at University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hannover, a partner of the BiNa project, first presented the results at the 11th European Bioplastics Conference at the end of November in Berlin.
Low awareness and knowledge
“According to our research, more than 50 percent of the German public have not heard about bioplastics. The other half has heard about bioplastics, but the level of knowledge is rather low and shaped by misconceptions such as the raw materials for bioplastics being organically grown (in German, the word ‘bio’ means ‘organically cultivated’) or all bioplastics being biodegradable”, says Blesin and adds that “the lack of knowledge is usually paired with high expectations about the products and materials, which, in reality, can hardly be fulfilled. A lot of people we asked were surprised when we told them that not all bioplastics are biodegradable.”
High demand for sustainable plastic solutions
The full extend of properties and potential applications for bioplastic materials is not yet fully known outside the industry and group of experts. Yet, the demand of bioplastics as sustainable alternatives to conventional plastics is rising. “One thing became very clear during our survey: people are in favour of and demand sustainable plastic solutions that reduce our dependency on fossil resources and use resources more efficiently”, says Blesin.
This trend is confirmed by the latest bioplastics market data report, published last month by European Bioplastics, according to which the global production capacities of bioplastics are predicted to grow by 50 percent in the coming years from 4.2 million tonnes in 2016 to 6.1 million tonnes in 2021.
Clear communication to create realistic expectations
The social and environmental benefits as well as the improved properties and immense innovation potential are the main assets of bioplastics and the key messages that should be communicated more clearly. The preliminary results of the BiNa survey highlight the need to increase the general knowledge and familiarity of bioplastics. This can be achieved, on the one hand, by reducing the complexity of the topics communicated and by breaking the issue down into categories that are relevant and understandable to the consumers.
On the other hand, greater acceptance and realistic expectations can be established by communicating the decisive advantages and added benefits of bioplastics in comparison with conventional plastics more clearly and easier to understand and relate to. “That also means to provide more information and transparency on the social and ecological sustainability of bioplastics through LCAs (Life-Cycle-Analysis)”, says Blesin.
And last but not least, clearly defined terms and acknowledged standards and labels can also help to communicate environmental claims to help consumers make informed choices. European Bioplastics offers a comprehensive ‘Environmental Communications Guide’ that sets out guidelines for a transparent and correct communication on environmental claims of bio-based and biodegradable materials. You can find the full guide here.
BiNa Communications Workshop: For more information on the BiNa research project, please go to www.biokunststoffe-nachhaltig.de. You are also invited to attend the “BiNa Communications Workshop” on 16 February 2017 in Hannover. More information can be found on the aforementioned website.