7 Myths About Biodegradable Plastics Busted

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By: Kate McCauley

New and innovative biodegradable plastics are often heralded as the savior to the global plastics problem. But are we being too hasty in the hunt for replacements to traditional plastics in packaging? And are biodegradable plastics really the most environmentally friendly solution for packaging moving forward?

Here are seven popular myths about biodegradable packaging.


Biodegradable materials are all plant based and environmentally friendly.

This isn’t always the case. Biodegradable plastics can be made from natural materials such as corn starch and Polylactic Acid (PLA), but some are produced using traditional petrochemicals that contain biodegradable additives that enhance biodegradation.

 
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Biodegradable plastics have the ability to break down quickly and decompose over time.

Strictly, the definition of biodegradation is the disintegration of materials by microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, or other biological means. But when it comes to packaging materials, there is no set definition of ‘biodegradability.’

Some biodegradable materials don’t biodegrade fully, others require specific conditions, and even then bioplastics made with petrochemicals can leave behind toxins and small plastic residue that contaminate the soil, making it unsuitable for composting.

 

We’re looking at biodegradable plastics because we want our customers to be able to compost their packaging at home.

This is great, but you’ll need scientific evidence to back that up. You’ll need to prove that your packaging can biodegrade over time in conditions typically found in a home composter.

Biodegradable packaging has a number of certifications that brands can look to gain. In the UK there are several certifications that let consumers know they are suitable for industrial composting or composting at home.

 
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Plastic is hardly ever recycled or disposed of responsibly, but biodegradable plastic can be.

In theory, yes. The majority of biodegradable plastics available on the market today, however, are only certified to decompose in ‘industrial facilities.’ Which sounds great, but consumers soon encounter problems when locating their nearest industrial composting facility, as there won’t be a curbside collection arranged by local authorities any time soon.

Many consumers may also place the biodegradable plastic into the plastic recycling bin. This not only contaminates the plastic waste stream, but it can also undermine and distract from the efforts to improve plastic recycling infrastructure.

Worst of all, the material may still end up in a landfill, making the whole process a painful waste of time, money and resources.

 

At least when it makes its way to a landfill, it will biodegrade faster than plastic.

There have never been any conclusive tests telling us how long plastic takes to completely break down. What we do know is that nothing degrades in a landfill, and even if biodegradable plastics did manage to break down they would release methane, a greenhouse gas more damaging to the environment than CO2.

 
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Biodegradable plastics are great because they come from renewable sources.

Say we did abolish PET oil-based films and replaced all plastics with bioplastics such as corn starch PLA films. Would we simply be replacing one unsustainable source with another? With 795 million people in the world without enough food to lead a healthy active life, doesn’t it suggest a moral issue with the idea of growing crops for packaging and not for people?

 

Switching to biodegradable plastics shouldn’t affect my shelf life.

This is where biodegradable plastics become the biggest paradox for food packaging. You want a material to degrade over time, but you also want to keep your produce as fresh as possible.

On paper, PLA films have a 6-month shelf life from the time of production. That’s before the finished packaging is manufactured, the product is packed and then shipped, sold, and consumed. For dry products with short sales windows, paper/PLA combinations are a great alternative but for longer shelf life and exporting it’s not a feasible solution.

 

This month Law Print launched their sustainability series, outlining their commitment to sustainability as well as providing a free eBook on the Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Packaging. To learn more, visit: http://lawprintpack.co.uk/ultimate-guide-to-sustainable-packaging/


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Kate McCauley

With a background in design and logistics, Kate is now coming to grips with the wonderful world of packaging.

Currently working as the marketing manager for flexible packaging firm Law Print & Packaging, their team is on a mission to communicate tangible, sustainable changes that packaging suppliers can deliver today, with the resources they have.