One must begin any assessment of product sustainability at the beginning, which in the case of bioplastics, generally means the field or forest where the crop or other plant material is growing. While bioplastics are being made today from a wide variety of agricultural and forest-based materials, most of the bioplastics available are derived from corn, bamboo, and other common crops and plants. How these crops are grown and/or harvested makes a big difference in the overall environmental profile of the bioplastic.
Sustainability concerns of agricultural production usually focus on the environmental impacts of producing and harvesting crops as well as the health and economic viability of farmers and farm workers.
Sustainability concerns of forestry do not include a “production” angle, as the trees are naturally grown (planting trees specifically for harvesting is considered “agroforestry”). The concerns focus on the impacts of management and harvesting on natural forests and the economic well-being of foresters, forest landowners, and others involved in the industry.
- Environmental impacts of agriculture focus on water, soil, and biodiversity. Soil erosion and pollution from nutrient and pesticide applications can contribute to reduced water quality, with potential health and water treatment costs. Poor soil management practices, including excess tillage, along with lack of crop rotations can reduce soil quality and increase loss of topsoil. Increased use of monocropping techniques and less variety of crops grown on the landscape contributes to a reduction in biodiversity.
- Environmental concerns of forestry center on impacts to forest health from excessive removal of trees and biomass, and poor forest management and harvesting practices. Poor practices can reduce the quality of forest soil, introduce or increase the numbers of invasive species, pollute water and air, and decrease animal habitats and biodiversity.
- Some farming practices and systems may be good for the environment, but if they don’t help farmers, farm workers, and rural citizens from an economic or community perspective, two critical components of sustainability are lacking. Farmers and farm workers, as well as the workers who process the feedstock and produce the bioplastics, need to earn a living wage, which means that they can afford basic necessities.
- It has been shown that when local residents are not only workers but also have some ownership in a company, the dollars generated through this business are circulated more in the local economy. Locally-owned operations generally employ higher numbers of local workers and source more of their materials and equipment from local dealers. This also works throughout the bioplastic value chain. Thus community or local ownership of bioplastic processing and manufacturing facilities would provide significantly higher economic benefits to the local community.
Sustainable agricultural systems are highly productive while improving and maintaining environmental quality, minimizing fossil-fuel inputs, and providing real benefits to health and the economy. While more and more farmers are embracing this kind of multidimensional approach to farming, they remain a small segment of the agricultural sector. With US policies that have long favored industrial agricultural systems, many farmers will need market and programmatic support to shift toward more sustainable farming. The bioplastics market can help provide this incentive for sustainable farming through support for programs and standards that directly or indirectly require sustainably produced feedstock.
The Working Landscapes Certificate (WLC) program was started in 2006 by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and Green Harvest Technology (GHT) to promote more sustainable agricultural production for emerging biomaterials sectors, including the bioplastics industry. This innovative program allows manufacturers, retailers, and other consumers of commodity crops to offer a more sustainable product to their customers by encouraging sustainable crop production, providing additional income to farmers using these practices, and improving the overall ecological impacts of agricultural production.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) offers two types of certificates. One type of certificate covers forest management practices, while the other focuses on chain-of-custody to track the wood source. Their third-party certifiers assess forest management using the 10 FSC principles, 56 associated criteria, and standards. Products can display any of these three labels: FSC 100%, FSC Mixed Sources, or FSC Recycled.
The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program and the Organic Foods Production Act are intended to assure consumers that the organic foods they purchase are produced, processed, and certified to be consistent with national organic standards. The program regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting operation, or handling operation that claims that its agricultural product has been organically produced. The standards require ecologically based practices such as ecological pest management and the exclusion of synthetic chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones in crop and livestock production.