Clearing up - biodegradable packaging

Packaging Professional magazine
21 Jan 2012

Biodegradable packaging can only be a positive step but insufficient information and unregulated marketing could lead to more harm than good. Packaging Professional asks a panel of experts.

The interviewees

Chris Penfold, Chief Executive Officer of Design Cognition Group Ltd

Keith Barnes, Chairman of The Packaging Society

Michael Laurier, Chief Executive of Symphony Environmental Technologies Plc

Sam Harrington, Sales and Marketing Manager at and

Stephen R Pye, Technical Service Manager at Walki Ltd


Q: Is biodegradable packaging a positive move for both industry and the environment?

Chris Penfold: ‘There is a lot of misinformation and greenwash out in the market at the moment, with no clear guidelines and very little impartial advice. Biodegradable simply means the ability of a material to be broken down by bacteria or another biological means. There is no stipulated condition or time frame on this process and being biodegradable does not make the product environmentally friendly or sustainable. So marketers selling products in that space can more-or-less say what they want without penalty. It can be dangerous to assume that something is sustainable simply because it biodegrades.’

Keith Barnes: ‘I have a problem with biodegradable packaging. The technology seems to be satisfactory, but biodegradability can occur at varying lengths of time. This is fine for environmentalists who aim to decrease waste, but the prime purpose of packaging is to protect the product until it is used, and in some cases afterwards.

‘Packaging using this process will start to deconstruct after a period of time and it is suggested that a compost heap is the ideal resting place for this to occur. At local council level, with controlled composting resources, this can work well, but the average consumer may not have such facilities available or indeed their own garden compost. So the public will dispose of the packaging in their recycling waste bin. This on its own makes it difficult for recycling without adequate sorting facilities.’

Michael Laurier: ‘It is important not to confuse oxo-biodegradable plastics with biobased compostable plastics, which are totally different technologies. Oxo-biodegradable plastic involves turning ordinary plastic at the end of its useful life into a biodegradable material. It protects the plastics industry from allegations that a product will lie or float around in the environment for decades. It can be recycled and made from recyclate, and causes no disruption of supplychains, and there is little if any extra cost. Bio-based compostable plastic biodegrades in the special conditions found in industrial composting, and will not therefore help with plastic litter in the environment. It cannot be recycled with ordinary plastic, it costs more to produce and is not even useful in compost, because it converts rapidly to CO2 gas.’

Q: Are Europe’s laws on biodegradability sufficient?

Sam Harrington: ‘I think the laws will only be sufficient once they work within a holistic plan to truly live sustainably. With that said, the UK is far ahead of most of the world, and I applaud its continued efforts to improve.’

Stephen R Pye: ‘The rules surrounding the classification of biodegradability and composting are determined mostly by Europe. Adoption of these directives and standards is the best way to have unified understanding of the disposal criteria for such materials.

‘It must be remembered that the overriding standard applying to packaging is the Packaging Waste Directive EN13427. This is an umbrella standard that includes others such as EN13428 to reduce the amount of material used in the first place, EN13429 to make the pack reusable where possible, EN13430 to make it recyclable and EN13431 if no other suitable means of disposal are available. In which case the energy contained within should be recovered or the material recovered with compost being an alternative solution.’

Q: Are there any ways in which government bodies could further encourage companies to explore biodegradable packaging?

Sam Harrington: ‘Currently, the focus is primarily on biodegradable packaging for food products. However, biodegradable packaging also makes sense in several other niches, like moulded protective packaging. It generally isn’t economically viable to collect and recycle expanded polystyrene and other foamed plastics. However, home compostable alternatives such as mushroom packaging could be incentivised.’

Stephen R Pye: ‘It is not clear to me that there is an overwhelming case for development of an infrastructure or a need to encourage biodegradable polymers per se. Currently, they do not offer the same protection or thermal performance as more traditional fossil oil-based polymers. We are therefore keen to promote the recovery and recyclability of the polymers used in packaging. Only if there is no other viable recovery such as valorisation, then and only if the material is destined to landfill or litter, should it be considered to be made of biodegradable materials.’

Michael Laurier: ‘Governments in the UK and abroad could make a massive difference to the environment by mandating the use of oxo-biodegradable plastic for all plastic packaging. This has already been done in the Middle East, and other countries are following their lead, because they know they will never be able to collect all the plastic waste. The British Government has no policy for plastic waste, that cannot be collected, and has been slow to recognise the benefits of oxobiodegradability. If all plastics were oxobiodegradable there would be no Great Pacific Garbage Patch.’

Q: How should a biodegradable pack be marketed and labelled for retail?

Sam Harrington: ‘It’s critical to differentiate between industrially compostable and home compostable. Deep green consumers have been confused and disappointed after testing PLA packaging in their home compost heaps. Exaggerated claims damage the credibility of all compostable packaging. [Packs should also] include some simple and brief instructions regarding disposal.’

Michael Laurier: ‘The label should state whether the pack is oxo-biodegradable or bio-based. Bio-based plastic should not be marketed as degradable or biodegradable because it biodegrades in the special conditions found in industrial composting, not in the open environment.’

Keith Barnes: ‘For those elements of packaging deemed biodegradable there must be a very clear recycling mark that makes it easy to separate other plastics that already have established recycling streams. My comments are aimed at the UK situation, but we are a global community with imports from numerous countries. How do we control the biodegradable packaging entering through this route?’

Q: What regulations should be in place to stop rogue packager’s that do not meet the criteria but claim to be environmentally sound?

Stephen R Pye: ‘Trading standards are clearly there to protect the consumer, so any evidence that packs do not perform to the required standards would render prosecution or an alternative under existing legislation.’

Sam Harrington: ‘In the USA, the FTC Green Guides are a good start to help eliminate green washing.’ How easy is it to get biodegradability accreditation?’

Sam Harrington: ‘If you have a product that truly meets the criteria and passes the test, it’s quite easy. However, the cost of some of the labels and certifications can be a barrier to entry for young start-ups with new technology.’

Stephen R Pye: ‘Here we must differentiate between biodegradability and compostability. Most materials can be considered to be biodegradable given enough time and sufficient conditions to promote bacterial and fungal degradation.

‘Composting, however, has a legal definition in EN13432. Here material must be subjected to independent and accredited testing to gain the necessary certification to prove the material biodegrades to the composting standard. This process can be expensive, time consuming and is only really relevant on the final pack. It has been found that some previously certified compostable packs do not subsequently meet EN13432 as adhesives, varnishes and labels or other fitments, which were not included in the original test procedure, inhibit the biodegradation process.’

Q: How has biodegradable packaging evolved?

Stephen R Pye: ‘Most materials used in packaging today will ultimately biodegrade given the conditions and sufficient time to do so. However, some renewable polymers have been created that allow for composting to be considered as a means of final disposal.

‘As a barrier packaging materials manufacturer, we have not yet been asked by our customers to include this as an end of life feature that they would be prepared to pay for. Given this fact and the lack of infrastructure to cope with necessary separation and sorting techniques, we will concentrate on the materials that offer recycling, or energy recovery as the most efficient end of life solution to packaging. It is important not to compromise pack performance by poor choice of materials as this will only result in more wasted product.’

Sam Harrington:
‘Our mushroom packaging that uses renewable agricultural by-products and mycelium (mushroom “roots”) to literally grow packaging is an example of a disruptive technology. It couldn’t have come from iterating on plastic foam or traditional bioplastic technology.’

Michael Laurier: ‘Oxo-biodegradable and bio-based compostable plastic packaging have evolved in parallel but in separate industries. Oxo-biodegradable plastic addresses the problem of long-term accumulation of plastic in the environment, which is now recognised as a serious problem around the world. Bio-based plastic has evolved to meet demand for renewables, but it is not completely renewable. We invest heavily in R&D and have since made metallised BOPP oxo-biodegradable.’

Keith Barnes: ‘I am sure that further R&D will create improved biodegradable additives in the future, but there is a lot more work to do in research and promotion to the public.’


Tell us what you think, send your comments to Ledetta Asfa-Wossen, News Editor: