What You Need to Know about Biodegradable Packaging
Many recent studies have shown that consumers are becoming more and more concerned about the environmental impacts of their purchases. One of the biggest concerns comes from the packaging. Consumers are expressing a desire for product packaging that is more sustainable and environmentally friendly. In response, companies are findings ways to appease these desires by converting to biodegradable packaging. However, how feasible is it to switch to biodegradable packaging, and is it even worth it? Let us address some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding this new packaging type.
Biodegradable and compostable are two markers that tend to be used interchangeably. However, they are two different terms. Biodegradable refers to the ability to break down and return to nature. For packaging products or materials to qualify as biodegradable, they must be able to completely break down and decompose into natural elements within a year or less. Compostable must be able to break down into nutrients that are beneficial for the soil or compost they are added to. Compostable materials will have added chemicals and nutrients, while biodegradable materials are able to break down over time.
Companies like Alter Eco, and the Seed Phytonutrients’ Paper Bottles by Ecologic are examples of biodegradable packing solutions.
There are several varieties currently available in the packaging industry for customers seeking biodegradable options. This includes
|Cardboard & Kraft paper – Packaging made from wood pulp and plant fibers are some of the most popular options for companies seeking green packaging. The recycled kraft paper like the kind we use in our kraft paper packaging can break down in a short time when disposed of properly.|
|Bubble wrap –Innovations are being made that allow bubble wrap packaging fillers to decompose. The process involves adding a chemical to the resin used to make the bubble wrap, which helps it break down into biomass, water, and CO2.|
|Cornstarch – A new material called polylactic acid (PLA), created by using fermented sugars from cornstarch. The plastic can quickly biodegrade, if there is sufficient oxygen and light. One use for the product is packaging “peanuts,” and they won’t harm wildlife if they ingest it.|
Another new form of biodegradable material that is seeing use on the market is bioplastic. This material is produced from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, cornstarch, straw, woodchips, sawdust, or recycled food waste. The benefit of using bioplastics is that they function just like the standard poly-plastic variety, but can be broken down under the right conditions. While plastic typically does not decompose in a short amount of time, bioplastic can break down into its based chemicals quickly when treated.
While more industries are adopting green packaging, not everyone can simply make the switch. Industries with stricter packaging regulations, like the food, medical, or cannabis industry have packaging guidelines that must be followed for hygienic and sterilization reasons.
According to the FDA, regulations are involved when an industry collects used polymeric materials (usually food containers) and proposes to recycle these materials to make new food containers. The FDA's main safety concerns with the use of PCR plastic materials in food-contact articles are:
- Contaminants from the PCR material may appear in the final food-contact product made from the recycled material.
- PCR material may not be regulated for food-contact use.
- Adjuvants in the PCR plastic may not comply with the regulations for food-contact use.
The FDA has strict guidelines for using biodegradable materials for food packaging. This amounts to even more hoops that must be jumped through for businesses looking to make the switch to biodegradable materials.
It is undeniable that clean packaging is favored by consumers. According to NYU’s Sustainable Share Index™: Research on IRI Purchasing Data (2013 -2018), 50% of CPG growth from 2013 to 2018 came from sustainability-marketed products. According to the Harvard Business Review, products that had a sustainability claim on-pack accounted for 16.6% of the market in 2018, up from 14.3% in 2013, and delivered nearly $114 billion in sales, up 29% from 2013. Most important, products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not. In more than 90% of the CPG categories, sustainability-marketed products grew faster than their conventional counterparts did.
While bioplastic serves a purpose, it is not the next step in packaging that it's being treated as. For one thing, bioplastics require high temperatures of around 50⁰C (122⁰F) to break down. Internal temperatures of closed landfills rarely reach 40⁰C (104⁰F), so it will not break down there or if it accidentally enters the ecosystem. Unless subjected to high heat, it will act just as regular plastic does. The composting facilities that convert bioplastics to their base materials must maintain high heat for weeks to properly break it down. Regular government composting facilities are not capable of handling bioplastics. Bioplastics are ending up in already crowded landfill sites, where the environmental impact is identical to that of regular plastics. Even when bio-plastics break down, they break into smaller pieces, resulting in microplastics that are more destructive to the environment and even harder to clean up than unbroken plastic products. Oxo-biodegradable products rarely even break down at all.
Another issue is that biodegradable plastics used in eCommerce packaging are unrecyclable. Standard poly-plastic bags can be cleaned and recycled, but biodegradable plastics cannot be. Also consider that while bioplastics come from plant materials, their manufacture is fueled almost entirely by non-recycled materials.
The fact of the matter is that when it comes to packaging, poly bags are the best at the job. They are lightweight, effective, and cheap. Moreover, in life-cycle analyses that measure the environmental impacts over the entire life of a product, plastic bags have lower greenhouse gas emissions than paper bags. While biodegradable packaging is a good concept in theory, in practice the technology has not yet advanced to the point where we can have strong and reliable packaging that can also be broken down cleanly. But, innovations are made every day. If you would like to know more about eco-friendly packaging, read our blog on how kraft paper is made, or on how to use green packaging to appeal to an eco-conscious demographic.
QQ Tip- Hold off on making the switch to biodegradable packaging until they come out with ones that can protect your products just as well as regular packaging.