Biodegradability refers to the ability of something to naturally break down and disintegrate through the intervention of fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms. A biodegradable material will assimilate into the natural environment with no ecological harm throughout the process.
It may come as a surprise, but some plastics are biodegradable. Known as bioplastics, these types of plastic are usually made from natural byproducts like starch, cellulose, algae, and some proteins. PLA is a popular type of bioplastic made from fermented cornstarch. Bioplastics must be made under stringent control measures to ensure international standards can confirm their biodegradability. They are a valuable substitute for traditional, petroleum-based plastic.
It’s true that plastic doesn’t really denote a sense of luxury in packaging through the evolution of packaging design, especially when value is placed on more permanent, sustainable, and natural materials in the unboxing experience. But bioplastics are beginning to fill the demand for hygienic, single-use items such as those demanded in health and wellbeing industry packaging. Though it may be more expensive than traditional plastic, bioplastic still offers a low-cost solution for consumer items like food products.
There are many encouraging factors when considering the environmental benefits of biodegradable materials for packaging design. Let’s look at the main ones.
As a planet that, in 2021, produced 37.55 billion metric tonnes of CO2, we need to seek any means possible to lower our output if we plan to impact global warming positively. Biodegradable materials are our friends in this mission because they have much lower carbon emissions than other less sustainable alternatives.
Biodegradable materials have a lower carbon footprint because they are made from renewable sources that absorb carbon during growth, balancing out the carbon emitted during decomposition. This is sometimes known as a carbon sink, a reservoir that absorbs more carbon than it releases.
Generally, biodegradable materials demand less energy for their production. Unlike traditional plastic, bioplastics do not require manufacturers to find hydrocarbons and extract, transport, and refine raw materials into the end product, meaning much less energy is used at the production stage. A carbon footprint is a central metric in determining whether companies can be awarded sustainability certifications as it’s a globally recognised, objective, standardised way of understanding the impact a product or entity has on the world.
Waste reduction in packaging is another significant venture in the mission to protect our natural environment and communities' environments. Currently, in the UK alone, in 2021, we generated 2.5 million metric tonnes of plastic packaging waste. This plastic waste is most often incinerated, creating harmful emissions that get pumped into the atmosphere or sent to landfills in the UK or overseas.
Biodegradable packaging materials naturally break down by microbial action and return to the natural environment as compost, meaning they do not produce waste when disposed of that might otherwise go to landfill or contribute to environmental pollution. Biodegradable materials can be industrially composted or, in some cases, even put in your garden waste at home. Usually, industrially composted materials break down faster.
Biodegradable substances are non-toxic, generally having been made from natural components which do not need chemical interference. This is beneficial to consumers who use the products as well as the environment. It’s a well-known fact that many petroleum-based plastics emit harmful toxins through resins or coatings, including phthalates, bisphenols, heavy metals, and fluorinated compounds that can be ingested or inhaled and which cause a range of serious health risks, including cancer.
Biodegradable materials often contribute nutrients to the soil as they break down, improving the health of the soil—a far cry from the toxins that plastics release into the earth when they go to landfills. Some biodegradable materials are even purpose-made to enrich the soil they break down. Packaging that incorporates matter like coffee grounds and agricultural by-products can act like fertilisers to the soil when they enter the composting stage of their lifecycle.
The rise in demand and popularity of biodegradable materials has caused an increase in biodiversity in the natural environment, as manufacturers encourage the growth of a variety of plants and fungi to produce them.
Biodegradable materials seem like the gift humanity needs to fix the overwhelming problem of waste and carbon emissions produced in the packaging production industry, especially when so many companies are innovating and creating exciting new solutions. However, there are always challenges to any material processing and production enterprise. So, what are the main challenges associated with biodegradable, eco-friendly materials?
Biodegradable materials have limited durability due to their structure. These substances are made from natural components, and their molecular structure is more prone to breaking down under natural conditions.
All plastics are degradable. Bioplastics are more degradable than traditional plastics because of their natural components, which can be compromised by water, microbes, oxygen, and even sunlight. Traditional plastics are made from long-stable polymer chains that resist these forces more readily.
But, one of the benefits of bioplastics is its ability to break down and re-enter the environment, so manufacturers and consumers have to weigh up the pros and cons: is it better to have a less durable product that can be recycled? Or a more durable product that is more harmful to the environment?
It’s no secret that sustainable packaging and products are often more expensive than alternatives. This is usually because more consideration and innovation go into sustainable products. They often require more complex production processes or, as above, are less long-lasting than unsustainable alternatives.
Bioplastic costs approximately 20–30% more than traditional plastic because they are made from natural materials that demand higher production costs. This cost is passed down the chain from manufacturer to supplier and consumer. This raised cost will affect customer perception of the product and brand. However, research about consumer opinions on the cost of sustainable products is positive, with two-thirds of consumers saying they’re willing to pay more for sustainable goods.
There are numerous success stories on how brands have innovated in biodegradable packaging material. Here are two cases where businesses developed intriguing packaging solutions to redefine the sustainable packaging landscape.
UK-based Biome Bioplastics has developed a range of packaging products using potato starch to replace traditional plastic films like those found in food packaging. As a leading developer in natural plastics, the business aims to reduce the demand for oil-based polymers that harm the environment.
Unlike many other bioplastics that require industrial composting methods, Biome Bioplastic’s product can be put into the compost bin at home.
While bioplastics are made to be organically broken down, many require specialist conditions to do this or at least benefit from industrial decomposition faster and more efficiently. However, this only adds steps into the product's lifecycle, which could raise carbon emissions as complex processes need to be put in place.
The innovation of this product makes home composting easy for the consumer, which in turn makes the product more attractive as there’s no extra effort on their part to complete their role in the sustainable lifecycle of the product. This also removes the need for complex decomposition systems, too.
Known for its innovations in seaweed as a sustainable packaging material, perhaps one of the most intriguing food and beverage packaging ideas Notpla has developed in recent years is the edible water pod. These pods are made from seaweed and plant extracts and act as completely biodegradable packaging—with the consumer acting as the vessel. Designers of the pod used a technique from molecular gastronomy, dipping a mould made of calcium chloride into the algae extract. A membrane formed around the mould holds everything in place as the ice melts.
The innovative product has been used to hand over energy shots to runners of the London marathon, launch a ‘glassless cocktail’ in partnership with Glenlivet, and is being envisaged as a replacement for plastic water bottles.
Future packaging ideas see the pod also being used to contain non-edible liquids such as bath oil, sunscreen, and other beauty and wellness products, with the idea that the pod can be composted if the contents are not edible.
There are a great many exciting sustainable packaging design trends on the horizon and we can’t wait to be a part of the push towards a future of sustainable packaging. Talk to us at Noramble about sustainable packaging design so you can be part of the solution, too.