Eco-friendly Packaging

PLA Packaging: Comparing the sustainability of thermal insulation materials

By now you should know we’re huge fans of PLA (Polylactic acid) packaging. With its thermal insulating properties, eco-friendliness and uses for sterile products, PLA is an innovative bioplastic that’s taken the packaging industry by storm.

We’ve already covered the basics on PLA packaging and even produced the ultimate PLA packaging guide. So be sure to take a read and discover how PLA is made, the advantages of PLA packaging and the full degradation process, plus lots more. On top of those articles, here’s some more food for thought with this compelling comparison of thermal insulation materials.

We’ll be exploring the sustainability of PLA and popular alternatives, and why we offer PLA packaging to our amazing customers at Swiftpak.

Introducing the alternatives to PLA packaging

First off, PLA packaging is mainly used to insulate temperature sensitive goods during transport. This ensures products are kept at the required temperature, particularly important for the pharmaceutical & medical and food & drink industry.

So, we’ll be comparing PLA to packaging materials commonly used for this same purpose.

The packaging we’ll be comparing the sustainability of are:

  • Polystyrene insulated packaging
  • Wool insulated packaging
  • Paper-based insulated packaging
  • Nonwoven cotton insulated packaging

Thermal insulation comparison table

Insulation packaging material PLA Nonwoven cotton Wool Paper-based Polystyrene
Material origin Corn, sugarcane or tapioca roots Cotton Sheep Trees Styrene
Degradation time 47-90 days 1-5 months 1-5 months 2-6 weeks 1000’s of years
Insulating performance Keeps content within 4°C of packaged temperature for up to 24-30 hours. Contents can stay at regulated conditions between -20°C and 8°C for up to 48 hours. Contents packed at 1°C will stay below 5°C for at least 24 hours. Keeps contents below 5°C for a 24-hour delivery cycle. Keeps frozen products below -18°C for 24 hours.
CO2 produced Very low Low High Low Very high
Leak proof Yes Yes Yes Not 100% Yes
Biodegradable  Yes Not 100% Yes Yes No

Sustainability of thermal insulation packaging

With the ever-growing concerns for our environment, companies across the globe continue to increase their overall eco-friendliness – Sustainable packaging is a great way to do this.

Therefore, when it comes to choosing your thermal insulated packaging product, sustainability must play a part in your decision. So, how do these thermal insulated packaging materials hold up?

PLA, wool and paper-based insulated packaging are all sustainable in their own way, and we’ll get to this in a second. However, it’s polystyrene that falls behind a little in this category.


Although Polystyrene is known for its excellent insulating and protective properties, unfortunately it’s not very sustainable. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Polystyrene is non-biodegradable, taking hundreds or even thousands of years to decompose.
  • Even when in landfill, small polystyrene components can be blown away by wind and eaten by animals, causing them harm.
  • Yes, Polystyrene can be recycled, but it’s bulky and takes up storage space. This provides little incentive for recyclers to consider recycling Polystyrene.

Don’t get us wrong, when recycled properly or even re-used, Polystyrene can become sustainable. In fact, the recycling rate of Polystyrene has risen every year for the past several years. Fingers crossed this upwards trend continues!


Unsurprisingly, wool insulated packaging uses the natural material from sheep – wool.

This is fully biodegradable and releases nitrates back into the soil when decomposed. Wool insulated packaging is also light and easy to store, helping with the reduction of transport and storage costs.

However sustainable wool insulated packaging may be, it’s still an animal product and this comes with some controversy. The shearing of sheep.

The Shearing of sheep can be a humane and cruelty-free process when done correctly. But when profits are a primary motivator for shearers, we can’t be sure of this 100% of the time.

Paper-based insulated packaging

Everyone knows that paper is sustainable. Paper-based insulated packaging is made from organic sources so is biodegradable, compostable and recyclable, making this a sustainable insulated packaging choice.

Although many worry about the felling of trees required for paper-based products, the planet has more trees than it did 35 years ago. So no ‘but’s’ for the sustainability of paper-based insulated packaging.

Nonwoven cotton insulated packaging

Nonwoven cotton is made from raw materials, using an energy-efficient process and is light and soft in structure (reducing transport and storage costs). Overall, nonwoven cotton packaging is a sustainable option for insulated packaging. However, the insulation must be secured by something. In most cases, this is Polyethylene bags.

Yes, Polyethylene is a recyclable material, but it’s plastic. This means nonwoven cotton insulated packaging isn’t 100% biodegradable.

PLA insulated packaging

Made from natural resources such as corn starch or sugarcane, PLA is an innovative and sustainable option when it comes to insulated packaging.

PLA produces the least amount of greenhouse gases than any other plastic. In fact, PLA is so sustainable that the net greenhouse gasses emitted during the process can even be considered negative. How’s this possible you ask? Well, carbon dioxide is consumed by the corn during growth! Meaning the carbon dioxide is effectively being recycled. How’s that for sustainability?

Why Swiftpak offer PLA packaging

Aside from the fact PLA is 100% biodegradable, PLA packaging is versatile. Whether you need to insulate an entire package using insulation felt, or a group of items using an insulation zip pouch, we can offer PLA packaging perfect for your requirements.

PLA packaging is designed for temperature controlled, safe and sterile shipping of pharmaceutical and food products. Therefore, we offer PLA as thermal insulation packaging solutions for our customers in the Pharmaceutical and Chemical industries as well as the Food and Drink industries.

To conclude

Sustainability is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to choosing your packaging. You need to consider performance, cost, safety and many other aspects to ensure a great package for both your business and end consumer.

If you’d like to find out more about PLA packaging and how it could benefit your business. Speak to a packaging expert at Swiftpak today, we’d be happy to help.