What is Biodegradable Food Packaging?
Definition of Biodegradable Food Packaging
The word ‘biodegradable’ is commonly used to describe an organic product capable of decomposition; opinions differ, however, regarding the timeframe of that decay. Several factors affect the rate at which a given material will disintegrate and return to the earth; these include oxygen levels, temperature, moisture and the nature of the material itself. Despite the lack of a definitive universal measurement, biodegradable food packaging typically refers to a product that takes less than 180 days to fully decompose.
With the future of planet earth in question, environmental concerns have taken a backseat to the pandemic of COVID-19. At times like these, it can seem futile to prioritise eco-friendly practices, with widespread panic tempting us to succumb to shortcuts like the trash can.
As we concentrate on recovery from the virus, however, it is more important than ever to maintain a green lifestyle. The European Commission has dedicated over €80 million to scientific research, and with the world’s best scientists on board, there is still hope for a bright and healthy future.
As the threat of the unknown looms large, we must keep our minds focused on a positive outcome, living as though we are likely to have many good years ahead. We simply cannot give up and destroy the earth, in the months leading up to a potential medical breakthrough.
Instead, we should double our efforts to restore balance to the eco-system, striving to reverse the damage in everything that we do. According to Alanna Shaikh (a global health and development expert) the link between this challenging new virus and the state of our environment is certain. On a recent TED talk, she states:
“When we burn and plough the Amazon rainforest so that we can have cheap land for ranching, when the last of the African bush gets converted into farms, when wild animals in China are hunted to extinction, human beings come into contact with wildlife populations that they’ve never come into contact with before, and those populations have new kinds of diseases: bacteria, viruses – stuff we’re not ready for.”
Shaik also mentions the fact that climate change creates an atmosphere that is more conducive to the spread of other viruses and bacteria.
The Future of Humanity is Hinged on a Balanced Eco-System
With the future in mind, we need to regroup and reinvent our lifestyle habits, honouring the mantra of ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.’ One way to prevent the rising climate is to refrain from investing in single-use plastics.
In 2019, a scientific report (published by the Centre for International Environmental Law) revealed that plastic emits greenhouse gases, all the way from production to disposal. The study revealed that:
“At current levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 C.”
Essentially, this highlights the commonly overlooked fact that plastic is actually made of fossil fuels. Furthermore, while recycling prevents greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, the process of recycling plastic unfortunately requires the use of our dwindling energy resources. In light of this, the European Commission has set the target of eradicating single-use plastics by the year 2030. With this goal in mind, food vendors and consumers alike are prioritising eco-friendly alternatives such as biodegradable packaging.
What exactly is Biodegradable Food Packaging?
So what exactly is biodegradable food packaging? With so many new products on the market, and major controversy surrounding the term ‘biodegradable’ it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact definition. While the word ‘biodegradable’ is commonly used to describe an organic product capable of decomposition, the main point of contestation lies in the timeframe it has to do so.
For example, an untreated plank of wood is technically categorised as ‘biodegradable’ however, a number of factors affect the rate at which a given material will disintegrate and return to the earth. These include influences such as the oxygen levels, the temperature of the disposal environment, the presence of water and the nature of the material itself.
As a result of these variables, the technical definition of ‘biodegradable’ can range from days to several decades. Despite the lack of a definitive universal measurement, biodegradable food packaging typically refers to a product that takes less than 180 days to fully decompose.
A number of recyclable cardboard products are biodegradable, as are all edible and compostable food packaging. When it comes to compostable products, these are defined as biodegradable materials that take less than three months to return to the earth.
Edible and Biodegradable Food Packaging
Edible food packaging is biodegradable, as it is made entirely from organic matter capable of efficient decomposition or consumption. The benefits of edible food packaging include the prevention of pollution, a reduction in landfill waste (provided that the packaging is disposed of properly).
This innovative alternative to single-use plastic, offers an efficient and entertaining solution to numerous environmental concerns. By freeing up space in the landfills, and reducing the energetic expenditure of recycling, edible food packaging serves to significantly reduce the onset of climate change. Among the wide array of edible food packaging available, the majority of products are best suited to fast-food or restaurant-style catering.
The spherical seaweed-based water pods known as the Ooho, however, are perhaps the most practical and likely to become commonplace in the future. If the technology can be developed, the Ooho could replace plastic bottles entirely, not to mention the traditional water sachets typically found at sports events.
These gel-like orbs can be used to contain any type of liquid, including cold beverages, sauces or even cleaning and personal hygiene products. If the world switched to using Oohos we could reduce the production and disposal of 50 billion plastic bottles per year. This staggering statistic highlights the significance of this invention; its benefits could reach even further if it were to replace soda bottles as well.
Edible utensils and cling wrap have also appeared on the market as an alternative to single-use plastic. Whether or not consumers choose to actually eat these products, the fact remains they biodegrade rapidly, decomposing within a matter of months.
Pioneering the edible utensil industry is the company Bakey, known for their flavoursome cutlery made entirely from grains. The plastic wrap alternative is produced by Evoware, and made from tasteless seaweed. The nutritious alternative could replace cling wrap in the future which is a notable achievement considering that plastic wrap cannot be recycled. Unfortunately, however, edible food packaging is currently rather high-end. This leads the majority of food vendors to favour biodegradable alternatives (that are either compostable or recyclable).
Recyclable and Biodegradable Food Packaging
While there are many food packaging materials that can be recycled, the majority of these are not biodegradable. However, paper and cardboard are both recyclable and biodegradable (provided that the surfaces have not been contaminated by any residue). The recycling process is highly sensitive to grease or food particles, which can cause entire batches of recycling to be sent straight to the landfill.
For this reason, deli containers, paper bags and pizza boxes should be added to the compost heap. While paper and cardboard is typically thought of as recyclable, as soon as it is dirty it falls into the compostable category. Regardless of potential contamination, we should compost all paper and cardboard anyway, as natural disintegration saves energy resources burned in the recycling process.
Furthermore, paper can only be recycled approximately six times, after which the material can no longer bind together properly. This is due to the fact that every time paper or cardboard is recycled, the long fibers it is comprised of become shorter and shorter. When this happens, paper is typically made into compostable products – designed to biodegrade quickly within the right conditions.
Compostable cardboard may look like traditional cardboard, however it cannot be recycled, and should be added to either a home or industrial composting facility. There is a variety of methods that can be used for composting at home, as well as a selection of materials that can be composted successfully. Composting qualifies as zero-waste and for this reason it is well worth the investment of time and effort.
Compostable and Biodegradable Food Packaging
Compostable food packaging includes all products that can biodegrade within a period of three months or less. Biodegradable and compostable food packaging includes paper, edible products and biodegradable ‘plastic’ packaging. Any food packaging that is made from organic materials, such as toothpicks, skewers or bamboo boats can be composted effectively.
In terms of composting from home, methods include indoor composting bags, worm bins or the traditional free-standing compost heap. When adding compostable packaging to a home-based compost facility, the products should be torn or cut into smaller pieces first. To successfully create a compost heap, it is recommended to layer two parts ‘green waste’ (fruit and vegetable scraps) to one part ‘brown waste’ (compostable packaging or cardboard).
While the majority of compostable items can be recycled from home, there are a number of products that can only be composted in an industrial facility. It is important to note that compostable packaging requires specific environmental conditions and generally needs to be broken into small pieces for faster disintegration.
For this reason, commercial composting techniques typically involve grinding the materials before turning them. Industrial composting facilities may also add enzymes to the biodegradable products, and manipulate temperatures for efficiency of decomposition. In order to determine which process the packaging requires, simply check the label for instructions. Unfortunately, industrial composting facilities are fairly rare. So, it is best to avoid purchasing industrially compostable packaging (unless a commercial plant is in your area).
What to Look Out for with Biodegradable Food Packaging
As is often the case, a number of false biodegradable packaging products have emerged. Unlike the phony claims of the beauty or gadget industries, the consequences of pseudo-green packaging have far reaching consequences. With the confusion surrounding the term ‘biodegradable,’ numerous companies have simply used this word to boost sales.
In reality their packaging may take years to decompose (and in some cases, eternity) meaning that it is not eco-friendly at all. As of yet, there are no laws in place to monitor what has come to be known as ‘green-washing’. This term describes companies who present their products as environmentally-friendly, without scientific evidence to back up their claims.
In addition to this, even genuine biodegradable plastics have contributed to our environmental concerns. Due to the fact that most biodegradable plastic packaging requires industrial composting (which is rare to find) a large amount of these items end up in the landfills. As biodegradable plastic is made from organic materials, when it decomposes in the landfill it emits methane – a harmful greenhouse gas. Additionally, biodegradable plastics take so long to disintegrate in nature that they have been found to contribute to the extinction of marine-life. For this reason, when purchasing biodegradable packaging, it is best to opt for paper or cardboard as it decomposes rapidly and can be added to home-based composting techniques.
The Bottom Line
While the threat of the coronavirus is at the forefront of everybody’s minds, we must strive to move forward in hope and positivity. Although the pandemic is very real, so is the possibility of a vaccine and medication. As we maintain social distancing during the next few months, remember we will get through it so we need to keep our focus directed towards the silver lining of this situation.
The measures being taken by most of the world (in terms of drastically reducing transportation) will serve to cut greenhouse gas emissions and delay the rising climate. Marshall Burke, a scientist at Stanford University, recently calculated that lockdowns in China have resulted in significantly less air pollution. According to Burke, the improvement could have spared the lives of 4000 children and 73000 adults.
Statistically, this represents 20 lives saved per one death caused by the virus. In the words of Burke:
“It seems clearly incorrect and foolhardy to conclude that pandemics are good for health, but the calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often hidden health consequences of the status quo.”
In the midst of the global crises, let us not forget the environment. We need to strive to direct our energies towards a bright and healthy future. We cannot ignore the planet at this time; every effort made towards the environment is an investment towards a better tomorrow.