Sustainable packaging, by dictionary definition, must cause little or no damage to the environment and ensure that the resources used are still available in the future. Sound straightforward, right? Let’s apply this definition to a range of so-called eco options.
Marketed as the sustainable alternative to conventional plastic, bioplastics are made from organic material. This can vary from agricultural waste products, corn or starch. Generally speaking, bioplastics look very similar to plastic, but do not rely on fossil fuels in production.
Bioplastics are also considered biodegradable. This means that with time, and in the right conditions, the elements that make up the packaging will return to the environment through decomposition. But, don’t be fooled.
Bioplastics cannot simply be thrown into a compost bin at home. In fact, industrial composters at high temperatures are required to break this packaging down. While this is not an issue if the material is recycled correctly, many local authorities do not have access to an industrial composer, meaning the bioplastics may end up in landfill, just like regular plastic.
Because high temperatures are required for bioplastics to decompose, this also illustrates a problem of bioplastics getting into our oceans. Ocean temperature, even at the equator, is not hot enough to break down bioplastics.
Production of bioplastics can also cause other environmental issues, such as increased pollution from fertilizers and land diverted from food production. Bioplastics have the potential to cause negative impacts on the environment, and therefore shouldn’t meet the definition of sustainable.
Another development is recyclable black CPET. Black CPET trays are a recycling plants worst nightmare as it is not possible to sort black CPET from other materials because of its pigment, carbon black. This pigment is undetectable by optical sorting machines as it does not allow light to pass through. To solve this issue, new pigment alternatives have been produced which still look black but are detectable by sorting machines.
These detectable versions should encourage more recycling or the commonly used black plastic tray. However, that is only possible if the tray reaches the recycling plant in the first instance. After all, the recyclability of a material is only as strong as the market for it. Scrap plastic is very low value, as it is cheaper to make new plastic than to recycle old plastic.
If recyclable black PET is likely to end up in landfill like most other plastic trays, is it a sustainable option? No.
What about aluminium food containers? Unlike so-called bioplastics, this material isn’t biodegradable. It never has been, it never will be, and it doesn’t need to be. Why? Because it’s already the most valuable material in the recycling centre, and one that there’s a huge market for. Unlike plastic, aluminium is snapped up by recyclers quickly due to its high value. From there, it can be melted and reformed into packaging time and time again.
The production of aluminium doesn’t deplete the Earth’s resources either. In fact, the cost of recycling aluminium is cheaper than the cost of making new aluminium. This makes recycling aluminium a very attractive prospect, with packaging producers continuing to source recycled aluminium for cost savings. The same cannot be said for plastic, which is cheaper to make from new materials.
Amidst the plastic crisis, we’ve been overlooking a more viable alternative. There isn’t an aluminium problem in our oceans because this material isn’t seen as garbage. Consumers recycle it, recyclers buy it and brands choose it. By the dictionary definition, this material is highly sustainable as it doesn’t cause negative effects to the environment.
For food processors wary of transitioning to eco-friendly packaging, the time is now to make sure the so-called sustainable packaging they are considering, really is sustainable.
Don’t fall for the catfish facade. Visit advantapack.com for sustainable packaging options.
About the Author: Miguel Campos is Export Sales Manager for Advanta Packaging.