Bioplastics for Packaging – More Sustainable than Plastic?

© Messe Düsseldorf / Constanze Tillmann

Especially important for the environmental compatibility: Packaging must be recyclable.

It is one of the big trends in our society: if it can’t be entirely “organic”, these days merchandise –especially foods – should at least come from sustainable production. Consumers ask more often for these products, which is why retail also offers them more and more. But the demand for sustainability doesn’t end with the merchandise: packaging is also following this trend.

The retail sector in particular requires enormous amounts of packaging materials. This is why retailers today don’t just need to ask themselves how sustainable the resources can be provided for production, but also how discardable packaging can be best recycled and reused.

Are bioplastics the logical consequence for packaging?

This is why there is a constant search for new and improved packaging concepts. It is especially important to create a functioning loop where new products can be made from packaging waste to save resources. In this context, the development of packaging made from bioplastics that are manufactured from renewable versus fossil materials and that can be naturally recycled, seems promising. At this point almost all packaging that a few short years ago was only available in plastic, is now available in an eco-friendly, compostable alternative.

Doubt about the advantage of bio packaging

After the emphasis in research and development in the packaging industry had been placed on bioplastics for many years, these days more and more experts question the larger environmental sustainability of bioplastics. One study commissioned by the German Federal Environment Agency (“Umweltbundesamt, UBA”) concluded last year that packaging made from biodegradable synthetic materials are not superior to conventional plastics and overall don’t provide any ecological advantage. Thanks to the cultivation and processing of plants for this type of packaging, soil acidifies more than with the production of conventional plastic packing material and there are increased fine dust emissions.

”All things considered, packaging based on so-called bioplastics has no environmental benefits. Even though bioplastics have a better carbon footprint, there are disadvantages with other environmental impact“, Jochen Flasbarth, President of the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA), explains the results of the study.

After all, CO2 emissions and oil use are less for the production of bioplastics, but increased pollution in other environmental areas is being created through plant fertilizers for instance, from which these plastics are being obtained. They actually increase soil acidification to a larger extent than the production of conventional plastics.

Further development work is required

But Flasbarth does not see this as the end of what’s technically feasible:”The Federal Environment Agency recommends promoting bioplastics in the future, only if their ecological superiority compared to traditional plastics has been documented. “Novel plastics like bio-polyethylene, which among other things is made from sugar cane, also still don’t meet these criteria sufficiently yet. Their production still needs to be further optimized. The use of plant waste could for instance further minimize ecological damage to where such plastics could definitely show benefits compared to conventional synthetic materials. More efficient production facilities in the packaging industry could also make a significant contribution.

© / nattio

Trays made of biodegradable bioplastics are more breathable than conventional synthetic materials, thus enabling a longer shelf life.

Retail still focuses on bio packaging

That said, there are nevertheless several advantages for retail, which argue in favor of bioplastics use. Compostable food packaging for instance has already been used comprehensively. Bags and trays made of biodegradable bioplastics for example are especially well suited for fresh products like fruits and vegetables. Since they are more breathable than conventional synthetic materials, they enable a longer shelf life. What’s more, they can be disposed of through composting and fermentation along with leftovers. Tote bags made of bioplastics are already available in retail all over Europe.

Despite the lack of ecological benefits, retail uses bioplastics, since they have positive characteristics important to retailers. Today however, this does not solve the problem of an unchanged environmental impact. However, one entirely different factor results in the impact being somewhat attenuated at least in Germany: today’s German consumers are extremely environmentally conscious. Internationally, Germans are already role models when it comes to the use of plastic bags. Compared to other nations, the number of consumed plastic bags is comparatively small and customers regularly bring their own bags to shop at supermarkets. In addition, plastic bags are not a disposable product in Germany –consumers on average use their bags four to five times before they throw them away.

The era of plastics in packaging is still not over

Plastic is still in great demand for packaging. However, the problem of recycling and disposal still remains because of it. The search for alternatives continues. Some are already known, but they have pros and cons of their own. Glass for instance can be used many times and is recyclable, but is very heavy compared to other packaging material. Paper, carton and cardboard on the other hand have a reduced carbon footprint compared to synthetic materials, but cannot be used in all areas due to their lack of stability. Aluminum and tin can also be recycled well, but especially in the case of aluminum, the verdict is still out on what impact it has on health.

However, the following continues to apply: retailers and the packaging industry have to follow the needs of consumers when they implement new trends and keep the entire value chain in mind. However, the continuing development work also has one important advantage – there are always new innovations and those who discover and implement the new solutions first, increase their competitiveness significantly.

Daniel Stöter,