Biodegradable packaging; a name, that amongst those who are concerned with the problem of global plastic-waste pollution, sparks hope and optimism.
So, that’s it then, the global plastic crisis solved!
This article has been written to help clear up the ambiguity that shrouds biodegradable plastics and help you decide whether using them in your business is an environmentally-progressive move.
We are building upon our article single-use plastic carrier bag alternatives. If your business uses plastic carrier-bags, check that out for environmentally friendlier options.
Before we get into the thick of it, let’s understand how biodegradable packaging should behave after disposal with a scientific definition from Advances in Technical Nonwovens:
‘Biodegradability is the capacity for biological degradation of organic material by living organisms down to the base substances such as water, carbon dioxide, methane, basic elements and biomass.’
Benefits of biodegradable packaging
The benefits of a biodegradable packaging depend on which type you use and what you use it for.
Bioplastics are arguably the best available alternative for a more sustainable packaging that is still plastic by nature, i.e., it can be bent and used to package items of any shape.
Environmentally beneficial, however, would be somewhat of a loose description for them. The scientific community has heavily scrutinised bioplastics throughout recent years.
If you’re considering making bioplastic packaging a part of your business, it’s vital that you delve a little deeper into each of the following benefits to get the bigger picture.
With that said, what are some of the perceived benefits to using them?
- Faster biodegradation
Polylactic acid biodegradable plastic, PLA, is one of the most popular types of bioplastic. Under correct biochemical conditions, it can degrade in around three months — a process that for many conventional plastics would take lifetimes!
- Lower total CO2 emissions
According to a peer-reviewed study carried out by PLA producer Total-Corbion, the global warming potential, GWP, of PLA is just 500g CO2/kg. This is much lower than that of conventional plastics such as polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride and polyethylene — all found to have a GWP of 1.7kg CO2/kg by the International Journal of Lifecycle Assessment.
- Exclusion from the Plastic Packaging Tax
Since 2020 the UK Government has been financially incentivising the use of alternative packaging through the Plastic Packaging Tax. Any plastic packaging that is at least 30% recycled plastic, or by weight predominantly non-plastic are excluded from the tax. This makes the use of bioplastic packaging financially beneficial for small businesses.
Plastic-free biodegradable packaging
What makes natural Kraft paper a good packaging choice?
Natural, unbleached Kraft paper has the highest tensile strength of all paper. The pulp fibres from which it’s made also boast a reassuring level of tear resistance and biodegradability.
The Canadian Kraft Paper Company has detailed strength information on Kraft paper.
Cardboard and chipboard
Why use it within your business?
Cardboard and Kraft paper both come from pulp fibre and so share similar biodegradability properties. When it comes to strength and durability, cardboard is superior to any other biodegradable packaging thanks to the corrugated strip of paper running through its centre.
What key environmental benefits do they all share?
A warming atmosphere and long-lasting plastic pollution aren’t the only issues worsened by conventional plastic packaging. The final major and often overlooked issue is that fossil fuels will run out.
Materials that are biodegradable by their nature, must at least in part come from renewable resources.
This multifaceted benefit shared by almost all biodegradable forms of packaging helps lower our reliance on fossil fuels, helping to preserve the world’s finite energy resources.
Below we’ve listed out some of the emissions created when producing 1KG of material.
It is worth highlighting here that papers often have higher initial carbon footprints, but are easier to recycle and the end of their use. In contrast, bio-plastics can be easier to produce but much harder to recycle and act as petroleum plastics after their use.
|Global Warming Potential GWP for biodegradable plastics, conventional plastics and plastic-free packaging materials|
in Kg CO2/Kg material
|Material||Global warming potential||Equivalent in miles driven|
Polylactic acid biodegradable plastic
Polypropylene(plastic bottle caps / take-away containers)
Polyvinyl Chloride(plastic shower curtains)
Polyethylene(single-use plastic carrier bags / plastic bottles)
Pulp paper/cardboard (depending on grade)
0.6 -1.9kg CO2/kg
2.1 – 6.7
Bioplastics: Biodegradable vs compostable
Confusion as to what differentiates biodegradable and compostable plastics is rife. The two are often considered to be synonymous, but the truth is not soo simple.
Technically, all biodegradable plastics can also be composted, and this is where the confusion begins.
Although all biodegradable plastics can break down in an industrial compost environment, some will biodegrade too poorly to be considered compostable by government standards. Therefore, the general acceptance is that all biodegradable plastics are biodegradable, but only some are compostable.
|Term||Meaning||In Terms Of Plastic|
|Biodegrade||Break down into increasingly smaller pieces by bacteria, fungi or microbes to be reabsorbed by the surrounding environment.||Biodegradable plastics may be partially or fully biodegrade depending on the ratio of organic to inorganic compounds that it’s made of.|
|Biodegradable||Able to decay naturally and in a way that is not harmful to the environment.||Considered biodegradable if it was produced partly or wholly with biologically sourced polymers.|
|Composting||Process of organic matter decaying after being added to soil. Usually done to improve soil quality.||Only biodegradable plastic sourced completely from organic matter can be added to a composting process.|
|Compostable||Able to be decomposed.||Considered compostable if it breaks down to government-set standards in an industrial composter.|
Is biodegradable the same as compostable?
The fundamental thing to know here is that biodegradable and compostable plastics are not the same.
Let’s dive into some of the reasons why and what they mean in terms of drawbacks on the environment.
Biodegradable/compostable plastics are categorised by the way in which they biodegrade. There are two main forms of these biodegradable packaging:
- Oxo-biodegradable: Biodegradation through interaction with oxygen and microorganisms.
- Hydro-biodegradable: Biodegradation through interaction with oxygen and hydrogen along with microorganisms.
Oxo-biodegradable plastic is made using a mixture of organic material and conventional petroleum plastic.
Oxo-biodegradable plastic is not considered compostable as it doesn’t meet composting standards set out by the UK government.
Not only that, oxo-biodegradable plastic needs a high level of oxygen to break down, making traditional landfill sites ineffective places for these plastics to end up.
The ultimate environmental let down of oxo-biodegradable plastics is that in reality they never fully biodegrade.
The bacteria that’s present in soil can only break down the organic materials. This allows oxo-biodegradable plastics to leave us with a parting gift of microplastics capable of entering our water and food sources.
Essentially, even bioplastics can pollute the environment. Just because something is made from plant materials, does not mean it will naturally degrade in the environment and the waste needs to be carefully handled. Often, it is not.
Hydro-biodegradable plastics are most commonly made from a form of starch.
Unlike oxo-biodegradable plastics, they decompose through the process of hydrolysis, requiring much less oxygen.
This means they can be composted in industrial composting facilities to achieve complete biodegradation — no microplastics!
In comparison to oxo-biodegradable plastic, the environmental drawbacks of hydro-biodegradable plastics seem unimpactful.
However, like all agriculture, the farming carried out to mass-produce the starch materials needed to make the plastics only adds to the threats posed by global warming.
Both types of plastics have their drawbacks. From a long-term environmental impact view, hydro-biodegradable, or starch plastic, is the eco-friendlier choice but only when disposed of correctly.
For a more detailed analysis of the difference between oxo-biodegradable and hydro-biodegradable plastics check out this insightful article.
What to look out for when buying biodegradable plastic products
Lack of regulations set out by governments has led to biodegradable plastics being notoriously mis-advertised to the general public.
2019 saw the UK demand more rigid standards on the labelling and advertising of these plastics to do away with the mass greenwashing.
It’s important for consumers to be wary of which types of biodegradable plastic contain a purely organic chemical makeup. Choosing these will maximise the fossil fuel consumption-reduction benefits that biodegradable plastics contribute towards. It may not always be possible to find out, but asking the supplier is your best bet.
It’s also important that you communicate these changes with your customers clearly, and highlight the best way of disposing of your products. Your suppliers should be able to provide this information. Consumers should also know how to dispose of biodegradable plastic correctly before buying.
Just because the packaging is compostable does not mean that it will compost in your back garden, and this should be clearly communicated to customers. Many bioplastics require commercial composting, and relatively few products are suitable for domestic waste. There are often local waste companies who can help with ensuring your waste streams are managed correctly. Look at companies like Paper Round, First Mile or Changeworks.
Unless disposed of correctly, biodegradable plastics will behave similarly to petroleum-plastics and only add to the global plastic waste crisis — defeating their purpose. They may be more environmentally friendly to produce, but they can pollute the environment just as easily after they have been used.
Should I use biodegradable packaging in my business?
Biodegradable packaging is most definitely a step in the right direction for any businesses wanting to improve their environmental impact. But as we’ve seen, some biodegradable packaging is much more friendlier to the planet than others.
So the real question here is, which biodegradable packaging shouldn’t my business use?
With the current consensus being that biodegradable plastics aren’t all that they claim to be, we suggest that steering clear of any sort of plastic packaging is the best way to go.
- General in-store purchases: encourage a bring your own carrier bag scheme. Reusing bags is by far the easiest solution, as plastic alternative bags still carry a high carbon footprint.
- Food/hospitality: bagasse can be used instead of traditional plastic food containers.
- Ecommerce: Kraft paper or cardboard materials have proven themselves worthy competitors as a go-to packaging.
- Bubble Wrap alternatives: plastic-free alternatives for extra protection.
- Packaging seal: there are even eco-friendly alternatives to plastic tape/sellotape for this!
If you have been considering switching to biodegradable plastics in your business, we hope this article has provided you with all the info you need to get started and make an informed decision! Bioplastics can be seen as greenwashing and it’s important that you communicate your reasons for using them clearly, and ensure customers know how to dispose of them correctly.
If you currently use bioplastic packaging within your operation, you can go a step further and swap:
- Bioplastic cups 🠞 paper cups
- Bioplastic carrier bags 🠞 Kraft paper bags
- Bioplastic disposable cutlery 🠞 wooden disposable cutlery
We’ve only highlighted examples of the abundance of plastic free packaging available. It goes to show that the marketplace for eco-friendly packaging is growing.
We recommend having a snoop around the internet to see what other environmentally-better packaging alternatives are available to your business!
GWP comparison table data resources:
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- UK Government opinion towards biodegradable plastics: