For decades, EPS (expanded polystyrene, frequently misidentified as “styrofoam”) has been the gold standard material for passive temperature-controlled shipping because of its price, performance, and its light weight compared to other materials. For these very reasons, it has been difficult to replace—it’s been a proven solution for the life science industry which is hesitant to change what is safe and validated. But new sustainable offerings are emerging for passive shippers.
First, it’s important to acknowledge there are a number of different ways to measure “sustainable” in packaging and operations. As Josh Russo, director of new product development at LifeMade, noted at ISTA TempPack, disposal doesn’t tell the whole story. Companies develop different KPIs to determine what makes for an improvement, looking at the entire lifecycle of their product or materials. Amazon and Hello Fresh both count carbon reduction among their initiatives, while Pfizer includes goals around decreasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as waste disposed of and water withdrawal.
Scott Dyvig, director of new business development at LifeMade, explained the company’s “good, better, best” motto for incremental improvement in sustainable offerings. Last year, the company debuted its EnviroCooler EVG, an EPS cooler infused with a bio-based additive, designed to allow it to break down in a bioreactive landfill in four years. Russo noted that this is not an oxo-biodegradable material—it will not leave behind microplastics which are a serious issue in natural ecosystems.
From ‘popcorn’ to Bioffex
Cut to 2021: LifeMade has launched its Bioffex™ technology, which has been in development since approximately 2012. The target is to replace packaging that uses EPS, including applications in healthcare, food, and more.
The initiative began within the Lifoam business unit as “Project Popcorn” to use PLA—polylactic acid, made from the sugars in corn starch—to replace EPS. “The goal was to have a bio-based material that performed similarly to EPS, but has a compostable end-of-life story. It took PhDs working continuously on the project and a couple patents and trade secrets to get the formulation finalized,” said Dyvig.
Bioffex products are sourced entirely from renewable materials, sugar beets and corn, and despite the name, “polylactic acid” is not an acid but a polyester. Zero petroleum is used in the material. “They take starch—corn or sugar beets—and brew lactic acid. Then they condense and polymerize it,” said Russo. “We're buying pelletized PLA from a major raw material manufacturer, and what’s special is the patented process developed by LifeMade that creates an expanded bead foam. This is enabling us to come to market with products that you've already seen—very similar in form factor.”
LifeMade has secured a USDA BioPreferred certificate at a 100% level for its Bioffex products, which falls under purchasing criteria for many government organizations and may one day be a part of industry KPIs for sustainability initiatives.
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Reduction in natural resources
Beyond the 100% reduction in petroleum from the raw materials compared to EPS, there are additional advantages in manufacturing Bioffex products.
Water usage: The technology requires 81% less water to manufacture compared to EPS. Dyvig said that it doesn't require as much steam to produce, and those savings can be included in sustainability metrics. “So if a company ships a hundred thousand EPS containers, we can say you're going to save X thousands, or X hundred thousand gallons of water because the production of the technology uses less steam and uses more precise application of steam than the equivalent in EPS. You can quantify the amount of water reduced and freshwater reduction, a KPI that people look at in their choice of packaging.”
Greenhouse gasses: Eliminating the hydrocarbon gas needed to expand the material reduces GHG potential by 83% over EPS in the foaming and molding of the products themselves.
Energy usage: Bioffex production uses less energy than EPS production—potentially up to 50% less. Savings depend on the size and dimensions of the container, but in addition to the water savings from using less steam, there is subsequently less heat energy required to create steam.
Additionally, LifeMade’s vertical integration (making rather than buying) means they’re creating beads 100 feet from molding operations, which cuts down on transportation emissions.
Like many sustainable offerings, utilizing Bioffex technology currently comes at a cost. The material is more expensive than EPS, but as Dyvig said, “The cost per pound doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.”
Results from chamber tests show that thermal performance is comparable to EPS, and the company is prepared to test against any standard profile. Bioffex products may also have additional advantages in transit aside from thermal performance, and the development team continues to study how those qualities can be applied to transit scenarios. Either way, the material behaves similarly to EPS in terms of reliability and repeatability, which is a key factor for quality departments feeling comfortable with repeatable, consistent protection.
Looking ahead, LifeMade is partnering with PLA suppliers to look at other sources and other materials with sustainable “beginning of life” stories, including other polymers.
End of life
While the beginning-of-life story of Bioffex products is important, it is disposal that puts it in a unique category. LifeMade is collecting data in industrial composting and landfill environments, and is in the process of becoming home compostable-certified.
The company wants the customer to have multiple paths of disposal. “There are opportunities for reuse, but there will always be a need for single-use shipping solutions due to the convenience and repeatable performance. When you look at single-use sustainable options, there’s an emphasis on end of life. What access do consumers have at their house once the patient has received their medication? That’s an evolving target—they may have access to curbside or composting… but that does not mean they will use it,” said Dyvig. “One of the areas that we feel is important for Bioffex is a lot of the sustainability is already ‘banked.’ The savings in petroleum, water, energy, and greenhouse gases are in the books by the time the end user does or does not do what they’re supposed to.”
For cases where industrial composting is not selected or unavailable, Russo said, “We’re testing both Envirocooler EVG and Bioffex products in the anaerobic landfill environment per ASTM D5511, and they’re showing very promising results. Degradation for EVG will be measured in years, not measured in decades or centuries as traditional EPS is measured. Meanwhile, even though Bioffex technology is optimized for aerobic composting, in biologically active landfill conditions it’s still biodegrading faster than EVG by a big margin.”
Bioffex products are ideally disposed of via industrial composting facilities, which an audience member pointed out are not everywhere yet. Websites like FindaComposter.com and communication with end users on proper composting and disposal are key. Most importantly, once a Bioffex™ container enters the industrial composting stream it will degrade swiftly, reducing to safe and usable compost in well under one month.
While industrial composting sites are not yet available in every location, the ability to compost Bioffex products and use that compost in agriculture tells a circular story, beginning and ending in the earth.