Food Systems Lab received a grant from the Trans-Atlantic Platform Social Innovation Call to lead a project titled Social Innovation Management for Bioplastics (SIMBIO). We used a social innovation approach to address the environmental and social challenges of bioplastic packaging throughout its entire supply chain from production to end-of-life management in collaboration with researchers from Brazil, Poland, and the United Kingdom.
Bioplastic packaging made from bio-based polymers has a large potential impact on both food systems and waste management systems worldwide. As plastic pollution is a global problem, the solution needs to be developed with a global context and cannot be isolated to one region or country. This requires close collaboration of research team members on both sides of the Atlantic to work on a solution to bioplastics that is viable and scalable to multiple locales.
From 2020 to 2023, we explored the following research questions:
- What are the social and environmental roles of bioplastic packaging in the global context of sustainable food production and consumption?
- What is the current understanding of bioplastic packaging for food from the perspectives of consumers and businesses?
- Under what circumstances is bioplastic packaging the best option for storing and transporting food?
- What are alternative products with lower environmental footprints that can be used instead of bioplastic packaging?
- How does the resource extraction and industrial processing for producing bioplastic packaging affect food security, the ecosystem, and the well-being of those impacted?
- If the quantity of bioplastic packaging increases substantially, how will these products impact the formal and informal recycling, composting, and waste management sector?
- If bioplastic packaging is the best option for certain scenarios, what are product design parameters, processes, policies, and supporting systems that need to be in place to manage a supply chain of these packaging materials that minimizes negative environmental and social impacts?
Building on our experience from running a food waste social innovation lab in Toronto, we used a similar methodology for this project.
Our team conducted interviews with stakeholders throughout the supply chain who influence and/or are impacted by the production, use, and end-of-life management of bioplastic packaging, including those who are normally excluded from design and decision-making processes. These findings informed a webinar that took place in summer 2020.
We held a series of online workshop sessions in the fall of 2020 to dive deeper into key issues and identify leverage points. Our workshops in winter and spring 2021 were on designing solutions and prototypes. The design brief and workshop summaries can be downloaded via these links:
How to Run a Social Innovation Lab Online
SIMBIO kicked off just as the COVID-19 pandemic started so we shifted all of our lab workshops online. We learned a lot about how to facilitate highly interactive activities online. We share our reflections and lessons learned from creatively using platforms like Gather.Town and Kahoot! to bring social innovation labs into the digital world.
The Complex Role of Bioplastic Food Packaging
Bioplastic packaging is a wicked problem with interrelated challenges that span their entire lifecycle. From the key informant interviews and social innovation lab workshops, we distilled key barriers and opportunities for bioplastic food packaging to be a truly circular innovation.
Findings from this project were presented at a webinar on July 6, 2022.
Visit our joint SIMBIO research website to learn more about the project by each of the four participating countries.