The Eco Packaging Decision: A Closer look at Biodegradable, Compostable, and Recyclable Packaging

Tuesday, April 25, 2017


We feel emotionally charged when we see our landfills and oceans overflowing with trash. Unless we take global action, this situation is likely to get worse. We want to do the right thing for the planet, and do it quickly.

Emerging green technologies and recycling efforts offer many choices on the eco-packaging front. Anything made from a substance produced from the ground seems like a legitimate, environmentally-friendly option.

Science, however, is never that simple. In some cases, the actual material used in a product may seem like a good idea. Simply using an eco-friendly package is only part of the equation. The second part of this equation and, perhaps the most important thing, is responsible waste management. How we handle this material when we’re done with it needs our attention too.

In the meantime, marketers have developed clever buzz words, confusing terms, and phrases to get eco-products into our hands. Words like biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. These words are perhaps the key to understanding the challenges of eco-packaging. We’ll explore these ideas later in the post.

First, let’s get an overview of different types of eco-packaging.


Eco-Packaging in a Nutshell

Eco-packaging is a combination of emerging green technologies, as well as using recyclable materials. A focus on using renewable resources, which we will categorize as eco-plastics, aim to help plastics disintegrate quicker or be absorbed into the natural environment.

The three areas of eco-packaging fall into these broad categories:

Bioplastics: Uses natural, renewable materials and entirely decomposes. Made from PLA (plant-based; corn or sugar) or from cellulose (wood, cotton, or hemp fibers).

Biodegradable plastics: Uses a combination of plants and petrochemicals and may entirely biodegrade. Some products feature PHA (polymers that produce bacteria) or PSM (starch and polypropylene.) Also known as photodegradable or oxy degradable.

Recyclable plastics: Uses existing recycled material to make new products. Made with nonrenewable petroleum-based plastic. New on the scene is an eco-plastic called biopolyethylene or renewable biopolyethylene, also known as BIO-PE or Green PE, (made from ethanol; fermented starch or sugar); this is non-biodegradable, but can be recycled with traditional polyethylenes (HDPE, LDPE, LLDPE).

Eco-products are constantly evolving, but their development is not without critics. For example, some question the amount of energy or resources used in developing alternative plastics, like the use of land for growing corn, for example. While the goal of a disappearing plastic seems within reach using a compostable material, this too has its share of challenges. Overall, these products have many environmental benefits, but the truth is in the details. The truth is, eco-packaging is tricky.


Keywords – Biodegradable, Compostable, Recyclable

To really get the benefit of eco-products, we need to pay attention to the goal of why these products were created in the first place. Unfortunately, simply choosing a green alternative will not solve our problems on the planet. Beyond this conscious choice is yet another question we must ask. What will we do with the packaging material once we are done with it?

If we can manage our trash in an efficient and responsible way, we are closer to easing our environmental burdens. Eco-plastics, for example, must be handled properly to reap the rewards of using the resources needed to make these products.

Let’s return to those all-important words to help sort this out: biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable. These terms can be blurred, but think of it this way. A product that is biodegradable is not necessarily compostable or recyclable, at least not without very specific conditions.

The only way a consumer can know if a product is truly biodegradable or compostable is if it meets the requirements of the American Society of Testing and Measurements (ASTM). The ASTM D6868 and ASTM D6400 tests determined that compostable packaging and compostable plastics should be able to fully degrade within 180 days. Consider that most of this testing is done in a controlled environment which can’t mimic nature or the real world.

Let’s take a closer look at how these terms relate to one another and their respective eco-products.


Biodegradable

Photo Credit: Doug Beckers, Flickr

All plastic is biodegradable, eventually. Even petroleum-based products will degrade over time under the right conditions. Considering that the first plastic was invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907, it hasn’t been on the planet long enough to know exactly how long it will stick around. All plastics aren’t equal either. Some plastics could take anywhere from 450 to 1000 years to degrade, while others degrade more quickly. The creation of biodegradable products attempts to speed up this process as much as possible.

The process of decomposition requires the right temperature, humidity, and the presence of microorganisms that break down the material and use it as a food source. Sounds like a perfect meet up of material and bugs.

The reality is that if certain environmental conditions aren’t right, decomposition is not likely to happen. In other words, where this bag ends up determines whether or not it will decompose, even if it’s considered to be biodegradable. If it doesn’t disintegrate, it will instead break down into tiny pieces and leave behind metal residue or toxins in the environment. This can create more harm to the environment than good.

Certain conditions must be in place for a biodegradable bag to decompose. Since landfills are void of sunlight, moisture, and oxygen, biodegradable bags can’t decompose in this environment. This oxygen-free environment produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2. The landfill is clearly not the place for a biodegradable bag.

What about at a recycling facility? This continues to get tricky. If a biodegradable bag ends up with petroleum-based plastics (like those made with PET or HDPE), it will need to be sorted out. Otherwise, it will contaminate these recycled goods. Since a biodegradable product isn’t necessarily compostable, the backyard compost pile isn’t necessarily a good choice either. Look for the ASTM D6868 standard to be sure if a product is truly biodegradable.

Well, where should this bag go? The best place for this bag is at a composting facility where it can be handled alongside other similar biodegradable products. Currently, there are only a limited number of facilities in the United States, which may or may not accept certain materials. This makes getting these plastics to the right place even harder.

However, the situation is not impossible. Biodegradable products can help the environment when they are disposed of properly. Should you choose this route, perhaps one thing to consider is how to educate your customers in proper disposal so the eco-benefit of this product is not lost.


Compostable


A biodegradable product isn’t necessarily compostable, but compostable products are indeed biodegradable. For a product to be compostable it must biodegrade, disintegrate, and have no eco-toxicity. Unlike biodegradable products, compostable products break down into “humus” which provides nutrients to the soils and does not release metals or toxins.

Compostable products are in the bioplastics category and are made from plant-based material instead of oil. These products will decompose entirely. The amount of time needed for this process will depend on the chosen environment. Like biodegradable bags, composting bags need the right temperatures and conditions. In a controlled composting environment, temperatures are set at about 140 degrees for about 10 consecutive days. These conditions probably aren’t happening in the backyard compost pile. However, in a pile at least 3-feet deep, chances are better. Typically, compostable materials take about 90 days to disintegrate, as outlined by ASTM-6400.

Bioplastic products are either made from renewable resources like sugar or corn, or are cellulose-based and made from wood, cotton, or hemp fibers. Plant-based products are made from Polylactic Acid (PLA) that is derived from cornstarch or sugarcane. With the second largest production volume of any bioplastic, it is a popular choice. PLA is said to decompose into carbon dioxide and water in fewer than 90 days in a controlled composting facility. Another benefit is that PLA can be broken down and made into fresh PLA.

Cellophane is a plastic that is made from an organic compound called cellulose. These eco-friendly products are not to be confused with popularly-named “cello” bags which use polypropylene plastic. Cello bags started with celluloid bags (not cellulose) and eventually became an industry standard term. The eco-friendly cellulose-based products are derived from wood, cotton, eucalyptus pulp, and hemp fibers.

Both PLA and cellulose-based products are compostable and 100% biodegradable. While these products are perhaps not as durable as plastic bags and may cost more, they are improving all the time. Other drawbacks may be less clarity, a shorter shelf-life, and more waste since they could break down or tear with use. Yet in addition to the environmental benefits, these bags are a flexible packaging option that is printable, odorless, pliable, food safe, and heat resistant.

At ClearBags we offer a line of PLA and cello bags, including Eco PLA bags made from EarthFirst® PLA film from Ingeo™ and Eco Cello Bags made from NatureFlex™ cellulose film from Innovia. These may be a great option for your brand, but don’t discount some of the benefits of recyclable materials.


Recyclable


Finally, there are products made from recycled materials and products that can be recycled. Typically, a product is labeled as recyclable when it can be collected, separated, or recovered from the waste stream so it can be reused or manufactured into another item. Neither compostable or biodegradable products can be mixed with recycled products. If these end up in the same bin, it’s just a big headache.

Recyclable plastics are made from non-renewable, petroleum-based resources, which can be reused or made into new products. The good news is that since plastic is made from petroleum, it is possible to recover 80% of this product by converting plastic into pellets that can be turned into other products. For example, high-density polypropylene (HDPE), once recycled, can be turned into patio furniture or playground equipment, among other things.

Relatively new on the eco-packaging scene is a renewable polyethylene, also called biopolyethylene, bio-PE, or simply Green PE. Instead of ethanol, green polyethylene is derived from sugar cane, sugar beet, and wheat grain. While bio-PE is not biodegradable, it can be recycled with traditional polypropylene plastics like HDPE, LDPE, and LLDPE. Possible packaging applications for this emerging technology are storage bags, pouches, packaging films, and beverage containers.

All of our polypropylene and polyethylene bags are recyclable. We also carry many paper boxes, stationery products, and backing boards made from recycled materials. Reusing existing materials instead of raw materials is probably the most familiar way to help the planet. The degree to which you invest in recyclable materials or in recycling efforts is a personal choice for you and your customers alike. Until more formal infrastructure is in place, recycling could be the easiest for end-consumers to do, and possibly your most green solution.

Responsible waste management is a key component for all packaging, whether it’s biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable. What type of packaging will you choose? This question really has a two-part answer. You must consider 1) what material to choose, and 2) how customers will dispose of this material. There are no simple solutions. To pave the way forward for new technologies, perhaps what is needed is three separate bins for our recycling efforts, labeled biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable. One thing is for sure, by putting materials in their proper place, we can positively impact the environment.




Additional Sources:

https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Lifecycle-of-a-Plastic-Product/

https://www.letsdoitworld.org/2016/07/biodegradable-plastic-may-even-worse-environment/

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/13/science/earth/plastic-ocean-waste-levels-going-up-study-says.html

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