To protect brands and make sure sustainability policies are working, the world needs to think about how to verify the content of sustainable plastics.
The rise of plant-based plastic has been meteoric. Despite a deep recession, the big makers of bio-plastics continue to rack up impressive growth numbers. Pike Research consulting firm of Boulder, Colo., estimates compostable plastics will grab 32 percent of the packaging market by 2014.
For the foreseeable future, plant-based plastics will cost more than their petro-plastic counterparts. Government regulations will continue to favor bioplastics. These two factors will create a strong economic incentive for unscrupulous players to pass off petro-plastic precursors and finished products as more benign, plant-based plastics.
Counterfeiting will cause waste-stream management problems when bottles that are supposed to compost do not, or when unwitting manufacturers attempt to reconstitute fake bioplastics into products and end up with an oily mess. And what if a major consumer brand boasts its packaging contains 50 percent plant-based plastics, but tests show the polymers contain only 25 percent? That could easily happen as supply chains for polymers become convoluted and it becomes more difficult to unravel the original source of commodity materials.
So what to do? Simple. Deploy technologies that can test the composition of plastic and examine its carbon isotopes to determine content. Several technologies have been used to study the carbon isotopic contents of materials. Such technologies are expensive, and hard to maintain and operate, and so have largely remained in the hands of scientists and researchers.
But new developments in these technologies, particularly in the realm of stable isotope analysis using cavity ring-down spectroscopy, have made these systems much easier to install and use. That means consumer brands, packaging companies and government agencies can now deploy the technologies without hiring a Ph.D.-level scientist.
The cost of setting up testing regimes is a drop in the bucket compared to the multibillion-dollar global plastic industry. Resin makers will want to certify their products to allow packaging companies to verify composition quickly and easily. Brands building marketing campaigns and sustainability claims need systems to verify content. Governments putting in place laws designed to favor green materials should maintain a level playing field by spot-testing plastics. At other stops along the supply chain, plant-based plastics should be tested. The technology is here today and ready for deployment.
It's time to check the plastic.
Woelk is CEO of Picarro Inc., a maker of molecular gas analyzers in Sunnyvale, Calif.