Biobased materials and biodegradable packaging

In many cases, biobased packaging materials can contribute to reducing carbon emissions and depressing the demand for fossil fuels. Although the potential of biobased plastics in particular has been a hot topic for decades, the development of the corresponding technologies and applications got off to a relatively slow start. Now, however, both biobased plastics and biodegradable packaging materials are on the rise.

Biobased vs. biodegradable

Biobased materials originated directly or indirectly in nature and include paper, cardboard, and wood. Using these materials for packaging, then, is not necessarily a novel idea. There are even various types of plastics that are made from bio-based ingredients, such as corn, sugar cane or sugar beets. These plastics are also known as bioplastics

There are various types of bioplastics: PLA (polyLacticAcid), Bio-PE, Bio-PET (up to 30% biobased), PBA, cellophane, starch blends, PEF (not yet commercially available) and natural rubber.

Biobased materials based on natural fibres: paper/cardboard, bamboo, banana leaf, coconut fibres, elephant grass, residual flows from agriculture and horticulture (tomato stems).   
‘Renewable’ is often used as a synonym for biobased. Raw materials can be considered renewable if they can be naturally replenished within the lifespan of an average human and include agricultural crops and some species of trees.

In other words, the terms bio-based and renewable say something about the provenance of a material. The term biodegradable says something about how the material behaves in the waste phase. Biodegradable packaging materials can be broken down into water, methane and CO2 by microorganisms (bacteria or fungi). This process is highly dependent on environmental factors such as temperature, the presence of microorganisms and the availability of oxygen and water. The term compostable is often used as a synonym for biodegradable.

Some biobased packaging materials are also biodegradable, but this is not always the case.
Nynke Arntzen, KIDV packaging expert 

Some plastics are what we call oxo-degradable, which is not the same as being bio-degradable. Oxo-degradable plastics fall apart into tiny pieces of plastics, or microplastics, when exposed to UV radiation, heat, or oxygen. This is an undesirable situation, as these microplastics end up in nature and pollute the environment.  

Biobased packaging materials: recommendations and considerations

  • Biobased packaging materials can have very different properties than traditional packaging materials, and whether bio-based packaging materials are a better alternative depends on the product being packaged.

    For example, PLA has a low melting temperature compared to the conventional material polypropylene, which makes it unsuitable for hot-filling products, such as ketchup. Because of its low oxygen barrier, PLA is however suitable for the packaging of breathable products, such as vegetables and fruit. Another example is PEF (Polyethylene Furanoate), which has a higher gas barrier than the conventional material PET. As a result, PEF can extend the shelf life of food products, reducing the risk of product failure.
  • Some bioplastics have exactly the same functional properties as conventional plastics. Bio-PE and bio-PET, for example, can be used in exactly the same way as their raw fossil-based counterparts PE and PET because they are molecularly identical. These bio-based plastics are also called 'drop-ins'.

  • In addition to biobased packaging materials such as wood, biobased materials made from alternative natural fibres can also be used to package products. 

    If you want to know more about current market initiatives on biobased packaging materials, please also have a look at our Platform of Sustainable Packaging Innovators.

    Bamboo, for instance, is an excellent raw material for boxes, whereas banana leaves can be combined with a binder and turned into trays, and coconut fibres can be used to make pallets. An important consideration here is that some fibres, such as elephant grass or agricultural waste, e.g. tomato stems, come in different shapes and sizes, which can make it difficult to combine them with standard paper fibres.

  • Packaging made from bio-based materials is not necessarily more sustainable than packaging made from fossil raw materials. For more information about the actual environmental impact of a particular material, KIDV recommends carrying out a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).

Biodegradable packaging: developments and challenges

KIDV currently prefers reusable or recyclable plastic packaging over biodegradable packaging and has drawn up clear guidelines for companies that sell packaged products and are considering the shift to packaging made from biodegradable plastics. This has to do with the following challenges and developments:

This perspective is in line with the results of research by CE Delft, the Transition Agenda Plastics and with the policy line on biodegradable plastics in the Landelijk Afvalbeheer Plan (National Waste Management Plan). If the development of new sorting techniques, new materials or new policy gives cause to do so, we will adapt the action perspective.

  • Biodegradable plastic packaging can, in principle, be broken down in industrial composting facilities if they meet the EN 13432 standard. In recent years, the processes employed by composting facilities have been accelerated significantly, which means that any plastic that cannot be broken down quickly enough is left behind in the compost.
  • If biodegradable plastic ends up with other plastic waste, it may affect the quality of recycled materials. This is why biodegradable plastic waste will, for now, have to be grouped with residual waste, rather than organic waste or other plastic waste.
  • KIDV believes that there would be more opportunities to use biodegradable plastic packaging if this type of packaging and the enclosed product would also lead to an increase in the collection of organic waste. This type of packaging can also be used for specific applications with materials that can be processed in closed-loop systems, such as special festival cups that are collected and processed after their initial use.

For more information about these guidelines, read our factsheet on ‘biodegradable plastic packaging’


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