Mass-balance – is it a con?

Philips eco range

Mass balance is being promoted by plastic manufacturers (particularly BASF) as the solution to the recycling crisis. But are ‘mass-balanced’ plastics the same as recycled plastics? If you purchase a product made using mass-balanced plastic, does it contain only recycled plastics? Does your purchase result in lower environmental impacts?

To create mass-balanced plastics relatively small amounts of recycled or bio-based feedstock are mixed with traditional virgin fossil-based feedstock at the first stage of the process to create plastic. This is a very attractive solution for product manufacturers, as the chemical composition of mass-balanced plastics are identical to virgin fossil plastics. These new polymers can be ‘dropped in’ to replace virgin fossil-based plastics without the need to divert time and resources to refine processes to accommodate the new material. An audit process has been established to allow the purchaser of mass-balanced feedstock to claim that their products are made from recycled plastic, even up to 100%. In fact, the plastic itself contains very little recycled or bio-based content.

Confused? Well, you are not the only one. Axel Barrett, the editor, and publisher of Bioplastics News claims he has ‘no clue what it means. They inject biobased feedstock on one side of the galaxy, and they eject fossil-based stuff on the other side of the galaxy but it’s branded (bio) “mass balanced”. I call this the Rubiks Cube Puzzle.’

When you purchase products such as Philips ‘world’s first breakfast set made with 100% Bio-based plastics* from used cooking oil’ it’s worth checking why the * is there. In this case, we are told the ‘main body made from 100% PP plastic from used cooking oil and other plant waste, certified on a mass-balance basis. And that BioPP is up to 94% of total plastic. Does this mean that 6% of the parts are made from traditional plastic or that 94% of all the plastic is made from BioPP? How much virgin fossil feedstock is actually in the product? We are not told. And yet the products are designed to look like they are made from recycled feedstock.

On June 7 BASF announced the expansion of ‘its Biopolymers portfolio by introducing biomass-balanced ecoflex® (PBAT). By the time this reached the press it was being reported as ‘BASF fully replaces fossil feedstock from ecoflex PBAT.’ Alarmingly this was reported in Sustainable Plastics, which you can be forgiven for thinking would interrogate such claims with vigour. Even the BASF press release is confusing claiming, ‘for the new ecoflex F Blend C1200 BMB, the fossil raw materials that are usually used in the production process are replaced with renewable feedstock at the beginning of the value chain.’ The important point here is at the beginning of the value chain. At the bottom of the press release it is disclosed that ‘In the biomass balance approach, part of the fossil feedstocks in the first steps of the manufacturing process is replaced by waste-based renewable resources. The renewable amount is then attributed to specific products at the end of the manufacturing process by means of a third-party certified method: BASF has established a chain of custody from the renewable feedstock it uses through to the final product.’ Again, through the careful use of language customers – be they product manufacturers or end-users of consumer goods – can be led to believe their products contain no virgin fossil resources.

It is not all bad news – your purchase of a mass-balanced product can deliver environmental benefits. Buying mass-balanced plastic that is 100% certified does reduce demand for the equivalent amount of virgin fossil fuels. The main problem, as I see it, is that press releases and marketing messaging are being deliberately crafted to conflate recycled with mass-balanced. If this continues mass-balance might be labelled greenwashing and rejected by the market. Consumers purchasing products based on their environmental credentials are likely to become disillusioned when they discover they have actually purchased products made with virgin fossil plastics. Mass balance is a step in the right direction – we just need transparency when it comes to messaging – something the petrochemical industry and even some sections of the press are not good at.