The Truth About Biodegradable Plastic Packaging

2 min read


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 difficult to know which packaging options to pick.

As environmentally-conscious consumers increasingly turn away from plastic packaging, it’s vital that both online retailers and product packaging design companies take notice. Some industry sources have highlighted the move towards sustainable practices in eCommerce.

But what about biodegradable plastic? Should you consider it as a serious eCommerce packaging solution?

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

Biodegradable plastics mean the material can be broken down by bacteria or other organisms. There are two categories of biodegradable plastics, plant-based or petrochemical-based. The petrochemical plastics have additives that help them degrade over time.

“Biodegradable” Doesn’t Always Mean “Good”

While this point is true of packaging materials in general, it’s particularly applicable to so-called bioplastics. It’s often pointed out that “biodegradable” is a very broad term.

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. Also, bioplastic manufacturing still leaves a hefty carbon footprint offsetting any potential benefit to the environment.


Bioplastics Usually Aren’t Recyclable

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

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

... in most cases, biodegradable 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

Composting Facilities Are Struggling to Process Bioplastics

Another keypoint 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 heatfor weeks to properly break it down. Regular government composting facilities simply 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.

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.

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.

True Biodegradable & Recyclable Packaging Material

Fortunately, there are many alternatives to bioplastics that are biodegradable and recyclable. These include:

Cardboard & paper – These are the most common biodegradable and recyclable options. They have been a staple packaging material before environmentalism was a “thing.”

Bubble wrap – Adding an additive to the resin in the bubble wrap helps it break down into biomass, water, and CO2.

Cornstarch – There is a new 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.

Opting for A Fully-Sustainable Packaging Solution

Despite the fact that the “eco-packaging” sector is continuing to grow and innovate, 100% sustainable solutions are still a long way off.

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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