Forget GDP – if you want to know the economic status of a country just look at the amount of packaging it gets through.

So says Frank Glatz, Managing Director of Cardia Bioplastics. Frank admits that he and his team love packaging, but they want to make it far more sustainable, as do their customers. “Everyone loves the idea of sustainable packaging and it opens a lot of doors for us,” says Frank, “but the product still has to compete on performance and price.”

The global packaging industry is huge, worth over $200 billion a year, but it is also very conservative. So for many mainstream applications Cardia needs to supply a product that looks, feels and performs just like the polyethylene and polypropylene packaging that customers are familiar with at the price they are used to paying. So how does Cardia achieve this with less environmental impact? And why are an increasing number of customers seeking out its products?

Made from renewable resources

For mainstream markets Cardia developed their Biohybrid range. Produced as a master batch it contains up to 75% renewable resin produced from corn starch. Customers typically blend this with oil-derived resins to achieve a renewable content of around 20%. As well as being renewable, the corn-derived component has a lower carbon footprint. At 20%, the resulting plastic has a carbon footprint that is at least 15% lower than standard plastic. Biohybrid resins are also compatible with current recycling processes.

It’s an improvement over the status quo, but Frank views this only as an interim solution. “Ultimately we need to go to fully renewable, completely biodegradable plastics that are part of integrated waste management solutions. This is our long term goal,” he says.

Compostable and biodegradable

Compostable and biodegradable plastics enable different waste management practices, in particular for organic waste.  This is the realm of Cardia’s range of compostable plastics. On the downside, compostable plastics cost more than standard oil-derived plastics and they are not quite as strong. However they do have some attractive properties of their own. With a matt finish that is soft to the touch, most people prefer the feel of compostable plastic. This makes it ideal for use in absorbent hygiene products such as nappies. Compostable plastics are also a good substrate on which to print, but the complete biodegradability is perhaps the major feature.

How degradable? The specifications all mention industrial composting facilities but what about my home compost bin? “All the standards are written around large-scale, properly managed composting facilities,” says Frank, but he assures me that Cardia’s compostable plastic bags will break down to carbon dioxide, water and compost in home compost bins. They also fully degrade in fresh or salt water, though it may take a bit longer.

Three markets

With a range of resins suited to uses as diverse as plastic bags, food packaging, injection moulding and blow moulding Cardia Bioplastics has decided to concentrate on three main applications.

First is supermarket carrying bags. “People should of course take reusable bags for their shopping,” says Frank, “but if they do need a disposable bag we believe they should pay for an environmentally friendly product.” While some retailers have been happy to adopt Cardia’s compostable bags, much of this market is driven by legislation in both developed and rapidly developing countries.

The second market is packaging, with a focus on absorbent hygiene products. Some manufacturers opt for Biohybrid films but others, such as Ecoriginals, have chosen Cardia’s Compostable film for both the back sheets of its nappies and for the outside packaging. This market is more consumer driven, where the soft touch matt finish and non-toxic properties are a big plus. Also aiding demand is that, in Germany, certified compostable packaging attracts lower waste management fees than standard packaging.

The final key market, one ideally suited to compostable plastics, is organic waste management. Organic waste makes up around 40% of household waste, and normal landfill is a poor solution. It will generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and landfill disposal costs are rising. It’s a global problem and Frank observes that even more spectacular than China’s economic growth is perhaps its growth in waste generation. It now stands at 330 million tonnes a year and Cardia is helping to tackle the organic component of this massive waste stream. Five district councils in China have already implemented organic waste diversion programs using Cardia’s bags and Frank expects many more will follow.

Australia is also getting on board, even without legislation. A few years ago Cardia had no real sales in Australia, but Frank now sees “islands of activity” as councils seek better environmental outcomes. Palerang Council commenced their City-to-Soil projectand supplies households with Cardia compostable bags and kitchen tidies to make it cleaner and more convenient to separate out organic waste. Other councils are going down the same route.

But the local scene is small fry. The real growth is occurring in India, China and Brazil. India’s attempt to ban plastic bags doesn’t seem to have worked, and its Supreme Court has observed that the country is “sitting on a plastic waste time bomb”. Compostable plastics could provide part of the solution.

Pursuing these larger markets has made Cardia Bioplastics into something of a multi-national company, albeit a fairly small one. Just five people run the head office and Application Development Centre in suburban Melbourne. Most of the other 70 employees are based at the manufacturing plant and Product Development Centre in Nanjing, China, and Cardia has sales offices and distributors scattered across Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Brazil holds particular promise. Cardia recently announced plans to build a film and bag manufacturing plant in Sao Paulo. Its production capacity of 500 million carry bags a year is at least four times that of the Nanjing plant, yet represents less than 1% of the Brazilian retail carry bag market!

Olympic springboard

Cardia Bioplastics began life in 2001 as Biograde, and amongst its highlights was being the exclusive supplier of biodegradable packaging to the 2008 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games. Since then global production of bioplastics has grown five-fold and this rapid growth continues.

Cardia’s potential to share in this growth is underpinned by a strong patent portfolio and global accreditation in all countries with relevant certification schemes. But most important is customer acceptance. On that front Cardia’s partner list reads like a who’s who of international brands, from McDonald’s and KFC to 7-Eleven, Nestlé and Kimberly-Clark.

So it may not be long before Cardia products are part of your life, though in many cases you may not even notice. But if your disposable shopping bags suddenly develop a nice soft touch, take a closer look. They may be made entirely from a renewable resource that nature can recycle more efficiently than humans ever can.

All images supplied

Disclosure: entities associated with the author own shares in Cardia Bioplastics.

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