While innovation is happening on the sustainability front, when it comes to packaging, information can often be incomplete when it comes to these new materials and, to be honest, some business owners simply don’t know the right questions to ask. What is clear is that consumers generally do not understand the difference between biobased, biodegradable, compostable, and the implications of these claims. Therefore, it is the obligation of brands that are truly committed to sustainability to not only educate, but also ensure instruction on how to properly dispose of these types of plastic are included on the packaging.
Plastics are most commonly derived from petrochemicals (i.e., fossil fuels); however, plastics can also be made from renewable biomass sources such as sugar cane, corn starch, agricultural waste, and other organic feedstocks. According to European Bioplastics, biobased plastics make up about 1 percent of worldwide annual plastic production.
Research suggests consumers are more likely to litter biodegradable packaging. According to one survey by Packaging News, 18 percent of UK consumers admit that they’ve dropped “compostable” food and drink packaging outside, mistakenly thinking it’s okay to do so in the belief it will quickly rot down where it is. According to European Bioplastics, biowaste represents 40-50 percent of the municipal waste streams in Europe, but only about 25 percent are separately collected and organically recycled at the moment.
Biobased, Biodegradable, and Compostable Plastic as Defined by the UN One Planet Network:
Biobased Plastics (also called bioplastics or plant-based plastics): Plastics produced from renewable feedstocks such as corn, potatoes, and sugarcane, or other biomass, rather than fossil fuels. The feedstock used to produce plastic is independent of its ability to be biodegraded or composted.
Biodegradable Plastic: Plastics that can be broken down by living organisms into elements that are found in nature, such as CO2 or methane, water, and biomass. When true biodegradation is complete, no microplastics should remain. Biodegradable plastics can be manufactured from renewable feedstocks or fossil fuels.
- Soil Biodegradable Plastics: Can be broken down by organisms found in soil.
- Marine Biodegradable Plastics: Can be broken down by organisms found in seawater.
Compostable Plastic: Designed to biodegrade in a certain period of time under managed conditions, predominantly characterized by forced aeration and natural heat production resulting from the biological activity taking place inside the material. Compostable plastic will biodegrade during composting but does not contribute to the value of the compost product, since it does not contain nutrients in its composition.
- Industrially Compostable Plastic: Requires conditions only achieved in industrial composting facilities (i.e., temperatures over 50°C) in order to biodegrade. Standards exist to specify the conditions and time required in order for a material to be labeled as compostable.
- Home, or Backyard, Compostable Plastic: Capable of breaking down at the soil temperature and conditions found in home compost piles.
Oxo-Degradable (also called oxo-biodegradable or oxo-plastics): Plastics are created with the addition of additives that cause them to break down under favorable conditions, most often UV radiation or heat. Oxo-degradable plastic fragments into smaller and smaller plastic particles, but has not yet been shown to truly biodegrade, raising concerns that oxo-degradable plastics are a source of microplastics.
Recyclable: As defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: “A packaging or packaging component is recyclable if its successful post-consumer collection, sorting, and recycling is proven to work in practice and at scale.”
Brands need to do the heavy lifting on education and communication by not only addressing the sustainable and responsible sourcing of the materials in use, but also to certify that a product is made from biobased content.
- Some but not all labels make a distinction between being made “from biomass” versus “from sustainably sourced biomass.” This is an important distinction because biobased plastics that are made from agricultural products can create competition for food, influence commodity prices, and accelerate the conversion of natural land to agricultural land.
- Biobased claims communicate to consumers that biomass has been used as a feedstock for plastic packaging. A potential issue with biobased claims is the scope for confusion with biodegradable. Like the distinction between recycled and recyclable, biobased plastic claims do not provide any information on how a product should be used or disposed of. Claims about biobased plastics should be accompanied by information on recyclability, compostability, or biodegradability, where appropriate.
- Biomass feedstocks can reduce reliance on fossil fuels for plastic production; however, it is important that they are sourced sustainably and subject to proper life cycle analyses.
- Packaging made from biobased plastic needs to be accompanied by information on the recyclability of the packaging. Biobased plastics that end up in natural or marine environments can have the same negative environmental impacts as plastics derived from fossil fuel feedstocks; proper disposal remains crucial for reducing plastic pollution.
- Biobased plastic is not necessarily biodegradable or compostable; on-package claims may communicate these qualities together. Similarly, while biodegradable and compostable are often used interchangeably, they are not synonymous. This interchangeability may lead to further confusion. When making claims about compostability or biodegradability, referencing compliance with a certification standard can increase the reliability of a claim.
- Most compostable claims refer to industrial composting. On-package communication that states that the package is both “100 percent compostable” and “100 percent biodegradable,” but does not provide further guidance on how consumers can compost this product, can lead to confusion. Access to industrial composting remains limited, and consumers are not always aware of whether these facilities exist in their area or how to properly dispose of an item, even if facilities do exist.
- The lack of accessibility is a critical issue for compostability and biodegradability claims because it becomes hard to describe these items as compostable or biodegradable “in practice.” Unless this issue is resolved, the overall relevance of these disposal techniques is arguably limited.
While we are making progress with the innovation and adoption of new materials, the solution to the plastic problem is not a simple one. It requires a tremendous amount of education on the part of brands and, in turn, requires them to make a commitment to educate the consumer.
The UN One Planet Network’s Consumer Information Programme for Sustainable Consumption and Production (CI-SCP) serves as a global platform to support the provision of quality information on goods and services, and the identification and implementation of the most effective strategies to engage consumers in sustainable consumption.
Download the United Nations Environment Program report on Global Mapping and Assessment of Standards, Labels and Claims on Plastic Packaging,
Photo: Javier Huedo via Unsplash