The Truth About Biodegradable Plastic Packaging

Topics: Design & Packaging
By Gavin Write
Person Collecting Biodegradable Plastic Bottles And Packaging

Are you eager to make your packaging entirely “green”? The world of eco-friendly packaging is a complex one. Even if you do make your way through the sea of scientific jargon, legal nuances, and conflicting opinions, it’s still challenging to know which packaging options to pick.

As environmentally-conscious consumers turn away from plastic packaging, CPG packaging design companies are taking notice. Some industry sources have highlighted the move towards sustainable practices in eCommerce.

But what about bioplastic? Should you consider it as an eCommerce packaging solution?

This material can be broken down by bacteria or other organisms. There are two categories, plant-based and petrochemical-based. Petrochemical plastics have additives that help them degrade over time.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about biodegradable plastic (or bioplastic) packaging.

“Bioplastic” Doesn’t Always Make the Best Product Packaging

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. It presents the same potential for damage in oceans as petroleum-based plastic.

It’s a big reminder that not everything that sounds green is the best option for you. It requires research and an understanding of what goes into the process of making the product packaging and what happens when it is discarded.

Thankfully, packaging design companies are finding green alternatives. But as we continue to learn about bioplastic, we begin to see that it’s not a great option. 

Product Packaging Companies Choose Recyclable Materials

Biodegradable plastics used in eCommerce packaging are almost universally non-recyclable. While bioplastics come from plant materials like corn and sugarcane, their manufacture is fueled almost entirely by virgin (non-recycled) materials.

This is a sad truth. While brands think they are doing something good, they are unwittingly still harming the environment. The process to create these materials are harmful in itself. If we use non-recyclable and non-sustainable methods to create something that should be green, is it really green? Even if it is a temporary means to an end, it’s not something we should be investing in for the future. 

There may be more investment and research in this area in the future, but current recycling options leave a lot to be desired.

“... in most cases, bioplastics will only break down in a high-temperature industrial composting facility, not your average household compost bin. Plus, these are not recyclable.”

Tom Szaky, founder of TerraCycle

Considering this quote, “bioplastic”, falls short of its name. It will not naturally degrade. When consumers see the claim that they are buying something green, they don’t picture a powerful industrial process to make it happen.

Product Packaging and Composting Facilities

Another key point is that there isn’t yet sufficient infrastructure to deal with the surge in bioplastic use. Bioplastics require high-temperature specialized composting facilities that must maintain high heat for weeks to properly break it down. Regular government composting facilities aren’t capable of handling this waste.

The consequence of this is that bioplastics are ending up in already overburdened landfill sites, where the environmental impact is little different from that of regular plastic.

This means that not all bioplastics are being properly disposed of, causing harm to the environment. This inefficient process is causing issues for sustainability initiatives worldwide.

Consumer Preferences Are Turning Against Bioplastics

As consumer preferences change, and as laws are introduced to mitigate the effects of plastic consumption, packaging design companies have an opportunity to build a competitive advantage by offering genuinely sustainable packaging. Consumer preference indicates a definite shift away from all types of plastic in consumer packaging, especially food.

Plastic, in general, is not good for the environment. Instead of finding ways to convert it into something more natural, brands are intelligently using the technology we have today to adopt existing materials that already have the potential for sustainability.

It’s also worth mentioning that eCommerce retailers like Alibaba have been criticized for promoting bioplastic, “green packaging” options when there is no infrastructure in China to dispose of bioplastics. People see through these claims and it proves harmful for the brand.

To learn more about consumer goods packaging design, check out this resource on packaging design that can lose a customer.


True Recyclable Packaging Solutions

Fortunately, there are alternative packaging solutions that are recyclable. These materials have already existed. Through innovative and creative solutions, brands can create more sustainable packing solutions.  These include:

Cardboard paper – These are the most common biodegradable and recyclable product packaging options. They have been a staple packaging material before environmentalism was a “thing.” Today, we see restaurants using paper straws instead of plastic. We see online retail companies using recycled paper for packages, making it responsible but also fitting with the style of their brand with its unique look. Cardboard and paper are versatile materials and we can do a lot with them.

Bubble wrap – Adding an additive to the resin in the bubble wrap helps it break down into biomass, water, and CO2. The material is light and can easily degrade. Using this within your packaging is a great option for sustainable methods.

Cornstarch – There is a material called polylactic acid (PLA), created by using fermented sugars from cornstarch. The plastic can quickly biodegrade, providing there are sufficient oxygen and light. One use for the product is packaging “peanuts,” and they won’t harm wildlife if they ingest it. This is a wonderful alternative for brands as they design their sustainable packaging.

These are just some of the materials that companies can use today. There are other options and as we shift focus away from bioplastics to other materials, we can find new possibilities for our packages.

Opting for A Fully-Sustainable Packaging Solution

Although the “eco-packaging” sector is continuing to grow and innovate, packaging designers don’t have 100% sustainable solutions yet.

That said, it’s immensely likely that the shift towards environmentally friendly practices, particularly in an eCommerce and packaging context, will be towards fully sustainable solutions, rather than the halfway house of bioplastics.

Bioplastic isn’t a long-term solution. It’s difficult to make, compost, and reuse. So, it might just be worth considering other packaging materials the planet has to offer.

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