Multiple surveys and research have shown how consumers are increasingly wanting greener packaging options.
A survey by Accenture was taken by 6,000 consumers in 11 countries and it revealed that almost 72% of respondents said that they buy more eco-friendly products than they had five years earlier and 81% said they expect to buy even more over the next five years.
Packaging plays a crucial role in this, and consumers are much more mindful when choosing a product as they will take more notice of the packaging and how it can be disposed of. However, some labels on packaging can be misleading, for example, just simply stating “biodegradable” does not tell us anything about the true biodegradability of a product.
In this article, we will be exploring the truth about biodegradable packaging and discussing whether or not it is really eco-friendly.
What is biodegradable packaging?
Firstly, what does the term biodegradable mean? Biodegradable is a substance or object capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms and thereby avoiding pollution.
In terms of biodegradable packaging, there are different types, and most are made from plant-based materials. For example, paper and cardboard originates from wood and involves cutting down trees that are a renewable resource and so can be replanted. As it’s made from plant-based sources and depending on the manufacturing process, the material would have the ability to break down and return to nature, so it technically counts as biodegradable.
Other biodegradable packaging comes in the form of bioplastics which are a set of polymers derived from renewable raw materials like starch, cellulose, lactic acid, and various other plant-based materials.
How long does it take for biodegradable packaging to break down?
Just because a product says ‘biodegradable’ it doesn’t mean it is good for the environment. A coffee cup could have a logo saying its ‘biodegradable’ and yet if it’s just left somewhere like on a beach it may take decades to disappear.
For something to be biodegradable, it would need to be able to breakdown biologically so that it completely decomposes and is then taken up again by nature. Below, we reveal how long each material takes to break down:
With cardboard, the rate at which cardboard decomposes depends on the type. Processed cardboard such as milk and juice cartons are coated and sealed with wax, so these will take around 3 years but could be prolonged by their water resistance. Corrugated cardboard can decompose much faster though if placed in a compost bin, it will only take 4-6 months. In general waste, cardboard will break down slower approximately within a year or two – however, it can decompose quicker if exposed to extreme weather conditions such as heavy rain, as this will cause it to erode.
Paper waste only takes about a month or even a few weeks to break down in landfills. The problem with paper is the volume and quantity as paper waste takes up more space in landfills than any other product.
Although all plastic is biodegradable, this process takes a very, very long time. Traditional plastic like PET cannot readily decompose or biodegrade as PET is made with chemicals that bacteria cannot consume. One of the other most common pollutants are plastic bags as they take a decade to break down, discarded thin plastic bags can endure for as long as 1,000 years! Plastic cups take 50 years to decompose, with plastic bottles taking 450 years in landfill.
Bioplastics such as PLA (Polylactic Acid) need industrial composting conditions in order to biodegrade. This includes specialised industrial composting and recycling facilities that are able to heat bioplastic to a high enough temperature for them to break down. In the correct composting facility, bioplastics can fully decompose in just 3-6 months. However, it is a complex process that we are still not well equipped for - the UK only has 170 facilities capable of recycling bioplastics.
With that being said, in order for customers to know if something is truly biodegradable, it would need to explain further on the label, stating under which conditions and how many years it could take. Just simply putting ‘biodegradable’ on a product can be misleading and a form of greenwashing if not true.
The problems with biodegradable packaging
A major concern for biodegradable packaging is that there are limited facilities that accept it in the UK, even in big cities like London. The two types of composting are home and industrial, but the facilities needed to break down biodegradable packaging tend to be in Scotland or up North. For the materials to be broken down correctly, the composting facilities would also need to have specific temperatures and conditions.
Bioplastics like Polylactic Acid (PLA) also require industrial composters to break them down after use, but they are far from guaranteed to make it to one. This is one of the reasons why PLA is not as sustainable as previously advertised.
It’s said most plastic packaging options that are labelled as ‘biodegradable’ are no more environmentally friendly than non-biodegradable plastics. Back in 2015, the UN exposed exaggerated and misleading claims by biodegradable plastic manufacturers and revealed many biodegradable plastics were simply marketing exercises and did not really safeguard the environment.
The UN highlighted several problems with biodegradable plastics including:
- Many biodegradable plastics required special treatment
- Oxo-degradable plastics produced harmful micro-particles
- Biodegradable labelling encourages littering because people think the plastic is harmless to the environment when this is not the case as they require industrial processes and high temperatures that do not occur in the natural environment in order to degrade.
A report by Greenpeace also raised the issue in December 2020, saying that most biodegradable plastics are still not good enough and require specialist handling and treatment. They are not designed to be recycled and no dedicated recycling channels exist. In fact, Greenpeace were unable to find any biodegradable plastics that were made of currently recyclable materials and said this was a serious issue as it made biodegradable plastics potentially more harmful than recyclable plastics.
It's important to remember that biodegradable plastics are still plastics and are intended for short-lived use and often stay in the environment for a very long time before they degrade. This means plastics labelled ‘biodegradable’ are not necessarily any better than regular plastics as they still pose a threat to our planet.
Biodegradable packaging and the plastic tax
Currently material that is biodegradable and bio sourced (unless made from non-chemically modified cellulose-based polymers) would all be liable under the Plastic Tax and would all be considered plastic.
In the case of bioplastics, while they are in scope of the tax, HMRC have clarified they are looking into this and there may be need to remove other materials further down the line. This is because while bioplastics do come from plant materials like corn and sugarcane, their manufacture is fuelled almost entirely by virgin (non-recycled) materials. This means that when companies think they are doing good by using bioplastics, they are actually harming the environment more without even realising it. Find out more about biodegradable packaging and the plastic tax through watching our latest plastic tax webinar alongside Comply Direct.
The truth about biodegradable packaging from Swiftpak
Unfortunately, companies often make unsupported claims about the biodegradability and sometimes this is just a case of having a limited understanding of what the term really means.
To avoid ‘greenwashing’ always make sure to check a products certification. The word ‘biodegradable’ alone is not enough, a product needs to specify the percentage of biodegradability, how long it takes to break down, what it will break down into as well as the conditions it requires to do so in order for you to see if it really is any more eco-friendly than other types of packaging out there. If biodegradable packaging ends up in the wrong place, it can be just as harmful as conventional packaging, so it’s important to always find evidence for these claims.
If you need more information about biodegradable packaging, contact our packaging experts today and they will be happy to help.