The Truth About Biodegradable Plastic Packaging

2 min read

Plastic Bottles

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, product 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?

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

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


“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.

Packaging design companies are finding green alternatives.


Product Packaging Companies Choose Recyclable Materials

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 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


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.


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 Recyclable Packaging Solutions

Fortunately, there are alternative packaging solutions that are recyclable. 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.”

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

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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