Bioplastics and biodegradable packaging

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

bioplasticsA more sustainable solution? Maybe and then again maybe not.

Plastic packaging is all over the media at the moment and that in an incredibly negative light. Consumers have growing concerns about how plastic packaging is managed at end of life, and are worried about leakage into the ocean. This has brought in a focus on what can be done about plastic waste.

The most obvious option is to reduce the amount of plastic packaging, but simply from a cost point of view this has already been on the agenda for brands and retailers for many years. What we are mostly left with now is packaging that has been carefully designed for its function - but not always with end of life considerations.

So, what is the solution? Most logically, several steps must be taken:

1. Reduction of amount of packaging where possible;

2. Rationalization of polymer types used in packaging to simplify the sorting and recycling process;

3. Design packaging with understanding of how it will be handled at end of life;

4. More recycling infrastructure, funded and ultimately subsidized through Extended

Producer Responsibility schemes; and

5. Consumer engagement to ensure as much packaging as possible is captured for recycling

What could the role of bioplastics and biodegradable packaging be in all of this? Should we completely switch all packaging so that it is made from “bioplastics” and which is “biodegradable” so that it will disappear once disposed of and will be made from renewable resources?

The short answer to this is “no”. Bioplastics will certainly have a part to play in the future and in some instances today, but we need to make sure the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of such materials is more beneficial than oil based plastics. Oil is not going away anytime soon, and while we are still refining huge quantities for fuel, should we not make use of the plastic that can be produced from its by-products?

As for biodegradable packaging, this is a minefield of confusing messages and lack of transparency. Packaging that will readily degrade in a home composting system, or in the ocean, is great in theory, but ensuring it can do that and deliver product protection is not easy. Many food products need protection from oxygen and moisture, and material that easily breaks down cannot always achieve this. There is a balance to be found to produce polymers that will maintain integrity during product lifetime (which many include many months in warehouses or on shelves) but will readily degrade once the packaging is no longer needed.

Then you come to packaging that is compostable, but only in an industrial composting facility. This then brings same challenges as any other material that is collected for recycling, if not more, because the consumer now must understand a whole new category of packaging which needs its own special disposal route. For example, imagine the confusion if some drinks bottles needed to go in the regular plastic recycling bin while others went in the composting collection. In some closed, controlled systems this may work, but we must be mindful of how material is handled at end of life.

So in some instances a biopolymer or biodegradable pack may have a more positive environmental impact, but very careful consideration is needed before using these materials. It should not be assumed that just because “bio” is in the name, it is better for the planet.

Plastics are wonderful materials, which when used correctly can have massive positive impacts on our lives. There is no better time than now to think hard about the various options, whether that be designing for end of life, improving recycling infrastructure, or replacing current materials with biodegradable or compostable ones. The answer is not always straightforward.

The problem is that many so-called “bioplastics” are not as readily biodegradable and especially not compostable as they are claimed to be. In a marine environment they will not degrade and compost but simply break down, just as “ordinary” plastic packaging material, into microplastic particles which end up in marine life and the food chain.

As said above plastic can be very useful indeed and there is, if I may put it like that, good and bad plastic. There the the (good) products that we can use for many, many decades and which are made of a single kind of plastic that can, at the end of the product's life, be recycled – in theory at least, whether it happens is another story – and then there are the bad plastic products, which include many of the packaging materials that are either non-recyclable or very hard to recycle because, often, they are made of more than one plastic and often, in the case of foils, several different plastics laminated together.

The Tupperware box, the reusable plastic water bottle, such as De Dopper, and the reusable plastic coffee cup, such as KeepCup, are actually your friend, and the Planet's friend, and not the enemy, as are many other kinds of plastics. Not all plastic is bad. It all depends on the type and the use. The current hype about plastic being bad is totally out of context. The problem is what we do with the plastic and the real culprit is us and the single-use plastic products.

It would be better if we would, to some extent, go back to (more) natural materials but for many applications there simply is not another option.

© 2018