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Why biodegradable packaging might not be… biodegradable

Why biodegradable packaging might not be… biodegradable
Image: Christopher Vega/ Unsplash

There’s a perception that product packaging labelled as ‘biodegradable’ will simply degrade in a matter of months, reducing litter and making for good compost. That is not always the case. In fact, it can be worse for the environment.

“If a consumer buys a biodegradable plastic bag and then throws it in their general waste once they’re done with it, they’re not being any more sustainable than the person who buys a regular plastic bag and puts it in their general waste. It all ends up in the same place… 

“I think the people selling these products are let off far too easy when it comes to their marketing. Some of these products are marketed as the green, earth-friendly, sustainable alternative, but if they’re not educating the consumer about how they need to handle that product to make sure that it’s actually beneficial, then it’s just greenwashing,” says Dr Rob van Hille, an environmental biotechnology researcher, as well as director of the Moss Group, a company that works with clients in the private and the public sector to develop strategies towards achieving sustainable outcomes. 

In March 2020, The Moss Group published a paper that sought to make a realistic assessment of  “the biodegradable and compostable packaging landscape in South Africa.” 

What is biodegradable packaging? 

“Biodegradable essentially refers to any material that can be broken down by bacteria and fungi in such a way that it changes its chemical composition,” van Hille explains, adding that in most cases, the material will get degraded into water, gas, and other materials. 

While there isn’t always a timeframe associated with biodegradability, plastics labelled as biodegradable for example, would degrade faster than conventional plastics; the latter can take decades to break down into fragments, and centuries for those fragments to degrade into gases and minerals, all of which might still not necessarily be good for the environment. 

Hence the promise of biodegradable plastics: they would degrade quicker, especially under the right conditions, and this would reduce litter and make it much less likely that the plastic will end up in the ocean and endanger marine life. 

Yet, the degradation of biodegradable plastics doesn’t necessarily mean that the material will be converted into good quality compost either. Additionally, while some biodegradable  plastic is made out of plant sources such as sugar cane, some can also be made out of fossil fuels and the production processes they go through can be just as harmful in the context of climate change. 

Read more on Daily Maverick: Waste recycling is window-dressing because not all plastics are equal

In the case of South Africa, the resin required to produce biodegradable plastics is not locally available and has to be imported from elsewhere, further adding to the harmful impact of biodegradable plastics on the environment by enlarging the carbon footprint of biodegradable plastics. 

Proponents of biodegradable plastic have also made a case for oxo-biodegradable plastic, which is essentially regular plastic with an additive added to make it degrade faster. But Susanne Karcher, a co-founder of the African Circular Economy Network, and managing member of Envirosense (she is a waste minimisation and pollution prevention specialist) explains that “oxo-biodegradables makes things even worse because they actually break it into smaller plastic particles. So you’re actually causing a massive microplastic problem.” She adds that while oxo-biodegradables are tested for degradation on land, there are no tests that prove that they will continue to degrade in a marine environment. 

Compostable vs biodegradable packaging 

Compostables are a class of biodegradable materials to which a timeframe and conditions are specified for degradation. 

Explains van Hille: “But they need to adhere to specific conditions in terms of both the extent to which they get broken down and the timeframe under which they do that, and there are a number of international standards that prescribe these. There are also differences between industrially compostable and home compostable products.” 

For example, say you buy a take-away cup of coffee labelled as 100% compostable. In order to reap the environmental benefits of the cup’s compostability, you would have to know the different elements that make up the cup of coffee. While the paper it’s made of might be compostable since it is made out of organic material, if it has a plastic lid, that would have to be a biodegradable plastic such as PLA (poly lactic acid). 

That’s not all: what kind of material it is lined with on the inside? Is it PLA? And then assuming that indeed, all the materials are biodegradable as per the manufacturer’s promises, you would need to ensure that it ends up in an industrial composting facility, where the correct set of conditions exist, including a temperature between 50°C and 70°C, forced aeration, as well as managed humidity. 

If that cup ends up within a regular waste bin, it would most likely end up in a landfill, where the lack of oxygen during its degradation would likely lead to the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In such a case, a compostable coffee cup bought with good intention and thought to be a more sustainable alternative ends up achieving the opposite result as it contributes to greenhouse emissions. 

Read more on Daily Maverick: Single-use scourge: Much of the stuff we buy doesn’t need to be wrapped in plastic

Alternatively, if one has set up a home composting system, one could consider adding compostable materials to that. However, without the controlled temperature and forced aeration provided in an industrial composting facility, the material could still take months or years to degrade. 

There’s also not much in the way of indication when it comes to whether or not some compostable products would be appropriate for home composting. The SANS 1728 standard relating to the marking and labelling of biodegradable products is not mandatory and most products on the market do not provide consumers with sufficient information to distinguish between industrial and home composting.

Greenwashing anyone?

“If something is certified as compostable, that means it was tested under a very specific set of conditions, with the correct temperature and right microorganisms that are responsible for the breakdown of the material, etc. There’s a perception that you can throw a compostable bag out the window, and it will disappear within 45 days because it’s certified compostable. That’s not the case. 

“For many of these products, if they end up in an environment outside of the conditions under which they’re certified (e.g. the ocean), they can last a lot longer. So it’s still important that biodegradable and compostable products are responsibly managed,” explains van Hille.

biodegradable packaging

Image: Agenlak Indonesia / Unsplash

“This whole field [of biodegradable plastics] is ripe for greenwashing,” adds Karcher, “the crux of the matter is that most of what is marketed as 100%, compostable or biodegradable, only degrades under very strict conditions. 

“It’s not about throwing it onto the street and it magically disappears; it needs industrial composting.” She adds that while some retailers might work towards adding biodegradable carrier bags and punt them as a sustainable solution, that is only the “tip of the iceberg”, as many of the items on their shelves are wrapped in regular plastic.


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Some biodegradable plastics look identical to recyclable plastic, and hence they might end up being disposed of together with plastic recycling. South Africa’s well-established recycling industry provides livelihood for a large number of people in the collection, transport and processing of recyclable plastics. But as van Hille and the Moss Group explain in their assessment paper, the market for recycled plastic is dependent on confidence in the technical integrity of the recycled material. Material sorting is primarily by hand or density separation, hence products made from incompatible biodegradable materials that are difficult to distinguish from conventional plastic, risk contaminating recycling streams.

So what to do?

Karcher points to the impracticality and the complexity of the biodegradable landscape, where consumers need to have an understanding of various plastics and codes, as a limiting factor to its effectiveness. 

“[Marketing biodegradable plastic] also diverts from the real message which is that we must find ways to reduce plastic consumption altogether. People are not having that debate because they’re feeling good about consuming again because they [incorrectly] think biodegradable plastic is not harmful to the environment,” she warns.

The way Karcher sees it, the solution is nothing short of a cultural and systemic change, from pushing manufacturers to redesign and rethink packaging, to coming up with new ways of delivering goods and services. 

She points to initiatives such as Loop, which is working with various companies, including leading brands such as Coco-cola, Nivea, Häagen-Das, Nutella and many more, to create a system of reusable packaging. The idea behind Loop is that manufacturers create reusable packaging, and when consumers are done with it, Loop picks it up sanitises it and sends it back to manufacturers for reuse. “Yes, we acknowledge that plastic is here to stay, but we need to circulate it, we need to build a circular economy around it,” says Karcher. 

However, until such systemic change takes hold and becomes the norm, and manufacturers choose to continue down the path of biodegradable plastic, van Hille adds that “there needs to be a large-scale system in place to ensure that the biodegradable or compostable packaging is collected and goes where it needs to. And at the moment, most communities don’t have that in place.” 

In fact, according to research cited by van Hille, even regular formal municipal waste collection is not yet effective at capturing all post-consumer waste, with a third of South African households not having access to regular waste removal. And when it comes to separation, it is limited to separating paper and plastic for recycling. There is neither the culture nor the legislation to ensure separation and collection of organic waste for composting. 

Read more on Daily Maverick: Plastic waste draft treaty is here and South Africa should embrace it

For consumers who seek out biodegradable packaging, van Hille advises they be wary of products that only carry descriptions such as “100% compostable” or “environmentally friendly” or just plain “biodegradable”. 

Although it’s not mandatory, according to South Africa’s voluntary Sans 1728 standard published in 2019 for the marking and identification of degradable products, key requirements include the following:

  • The product must carry the polymer code, material type acronym (e.g. PET, PLA, etc.) along with the appropriate wording (i.e. biodegradable, compostable or oxobiodegradable).
  • If the product is made of multiple components and these are intended for different waste streams, the information must be clearly displayed on the package (e.g. closure — recyclable, PLA bottle — compostable).
  • If separation of components is required, clear instructions on how to do this must be included.
  • If products claim to be biodegradable, compostable or oxo-biodegradable, they must conform to the appropriate international standards. Claims must be verified by accredited laboratories and supported by raw material technical data sheets, as per the appropriate standard.
  • No vague or non-specific claims that imply the product has environmental benefits, such as “green”, “environment friendly”, “earth safe” etc are permitted.
  • No claims of achieving sustainability should be made as there are no currently definitive methods for measuring sustainability or confirming its accomplishment.
  • An explanatory statement must accompany self-declared environmental claims.

“First of all, make sure that the product has a visible, credible certification on it. Don’t buy something that says biodegradable or compostable if it doesn’t have the certification logo on it. If it doesn’t have a logo and you still want to buy it, you’re perfectly within your rights to ask the person who’s selling it to show you a certificate that proves that the material has been certified for biodegradability or compostability,” says van Hille. 

“The next thing is to be responsible about handling the product once you’ve finished using it. Don’t mix it with your general waste. Importantly, don’t mix it with your recycling. If you have a home composting facility, put it in there. 

“You can also keep a compostable bag for organic waste and compostable packaging at home, and once it is full, then you can take it to drop off centre. I know that down here in the Western Cape, there are some municipal drop-off centres that have a drop-off for organics. So you would have to check with your municipality first. But if there is such a drop-off centre, you can feel reasonably confident that it will get to a compositing facility,” he adds.

Importantly, he recommends that consumers stay vigilant and call out companies that partake in “greenwashing” their products. 

The future of biodegradable packaging

Biodegradable packaging is still a relatively new concept, and consumers are still getting to grips with the full life-cycle of biodegradable products, and the role they, as well as government legislators, have to play in order to ensure that it is effective. However, while the Moss Group and many others continue to work with the public and private sector to research and inform so that biodegradable materials are used correctly, and that consumers are not taken advantage of through the use of opportunistic marketing messages, van Hille believes that fit-for-purpose biodegradable materials have a role to play, particularly in the agricultural sector.

For a number of reasons, including cost and technical properties for food safety and preservation, as well as the abovementioned challenges, current applications for biodegradable packaging, especially biodegradable plastic, remain relatively niche. 

However, “I think globally and in South Africa, there’s great potential for biodegradable/compostable alternatives for agricultural plastics. If you’ve been to a strawberry field, you’ll see there’s often that black plastic around the base of the plants, you’ll see something similar with grape vines, etc. A lot of that is conventional plastic, and that breaks down and puts plastic fragments into the environment. So that to me would be an ideal application for compostable plastic alternatives,” says van Hille.

Karcher concurs: “I agree with Rob; I see benefits in fringe markets, in the agricultural sector for example; if all the nurseries had biodegradable plant pots, that will make sense because then you can stick the whole thing into the ground with the pot and the pot biodegrades. These are the kinds of situations where biodegradable plastic should be used.” DM/ML

If you liked this story, read Welcome to the fantastic plastic free world of 2021

Welcome to the fantastic, plastic-free world of 2121


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