The goal of the Sustainable Resources Principle is to transform the resources used to produce plastics from unsustainable fossil fuels to a sustainable renewable resource base. The challenge in the transition from fossil fuel to biological feedstocks for plastics is how to do so sustainably, without creating environmental damage that is equal to or worse than the existing impacts of fossil fuel extraction and processing.
The renewable resource for plastics is agricultural crops and their byproducts, primarily corn, soy, sugar cane and sugar beets. But the renewable resources available for industrial products are likely to increase, including: non-food plant crops (for example, switchgrass) and organic wastes (for example, yard waste, food waste or biosolids).
To date, there are no widely accepted principles of sustainable agriculture for commodity crops. The principles for sustainable biomass developed by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Friends of the Earth set a foundation for specifying more sustainable commodity crops, including growing crops that should:
Be sustainable for local communities, including:
- Not imposing unjust burdens on economically or socially marginal communities
- Not jeopardizing food security
- Promoting local ownership and control over crop production and processing facilities.
Be sustainable for the climate, environment and public health, including:
- Significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the life cycle of the material
- Maintaining and building soil structure and fertility
- Conserving water quantity and quality
- Not encroaching on forests and other intact ecosystems
- Improving biological diversity (which encompasses not using genetically modified crops)
- Minimizing, and eliminating whenever possible, the use of dangerous agrochemicals
These are the principles that growers of biobased feedstocks need to adopt and implement. When the sources of biological feedstocks are biological wastes (for example food, yard, animal or human waste), the relevant sustainability principles for that waste stream would apply. For example, if it is animal waste, then the animals need to be raised according to sustainable animal husbandry practices -- including the appropriate use of antibiotics and the humane treatment of animals.
In addition to ensuring that the transition to renewable materials is sustainable, it is critical to preserve natural capital - to do more with less by increasing resource efficiency and productivity, reducing our material throughput.