Do you know some definitions of sustainability in packaging?

November 08, 2023

        Sustainability is a consistent theme for the packaging industry. However, are you confused about some definitions of sustainability in packaging? To be honest, you may not be alone.

        One of the most confusing areas in sustainability: the intersection of compostable, biodegradable and recyclable (bioplastic) packaging. Although these three terms are often mentioned together in some discussions, they are not synonymous.

        For example, many people may not know that plant-based packaging materials themselves are not necessarily compostable or biodegradable; some compostable materials are derived from oil-based resources; in addition, compostable materials are not also necessarily biodegradable.

Compostable materials and the packaging

        "Compostable" materials refer to materials that break down naturally over time into nutritious, agriculturally useful fertilizers and are made using fungi, bacteria, animal proteins and other organisms.

        There are currently two types of compostable materials - Home Compostable and Industrial Compostable. "Home compost" refers to materials that can degrade at natural ambient temperatures along with food scraps, grass clippings, leaves or other organic materials. The certification standards for household compost materials are very strict. They must degrade (physical decomposition) within 6 months and form compost (chemical decomposition) within 12 months before they can be certified as household compost. "Industrial compost" materials require higher temperatures and specific levels of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen to degrade, but they decompose faster. Additionally, certified industrial compost materials must biodegrade and form compost within 180 days.

        There are also new developments in biodegradable and compostable packaging, which will become mandatory for certain products such as tea bags, coffee pods, stickers for fruit and vegetables and ultra-lightweight plastic bags within two years of the regulations coming into force. In general, the use of compostable plastics is only allowed if there is a clear benefit to the environment or human health; in particular, cross-contamination of conventional and compostable plastic waste should be avoided, which could compromise the quality of the recycled material.

        If collection schemes and organic waste treatment infrastructure are well equipped, some of countries may decide to approve the use of lightweight compostable plastic bags. but in some countries, new regulations also require that compostable polymers may no longer be used in packaging except where expressly permitted.

Biodegradable materials and the packaging

        "Biodegradable" materials refer to the use of biological decomposition technology so that the materials can be metabolized by microorganisms in soil or water into natural substances (water, methane) without external intervention. Biodegradable materials buried in soil that can be certified must degrade anaerobically, or degrade without oxygen. To meet marine biodegradability standards, materials must physically break down within 3 months and biodegrade in water within 6 months.

        There are also several key differences between compostable and biodegradable materials-compostable materials cannot degrade anaerobically like biodegradable materials found in landfills, nor can they degrade in water like marine biodegradable materials; Likewise, biodegradable materials cannot compost due to the different environments in which they break down. Biodegradable means that a substance can be completely broken down into natural components through biological methods. EU standards define biodegradable materials as: Within 6 months, with the assistance of bacteria, fungi or other simple organisms, 90% of the original material can eventually decompose into carbon dioxide, water and minerals.

        Compared with biodegradability, compostability is a higher standard: improving the efficiency of biodegradation by controlling humidity, temperature and oxidation processes, and requiring that materials are eventually broken down into completely non-toxic components. The entire process is environmentally friendly. It can be seen that compostable materials must be biodegradable, but biodegradable materials may not necessarily be compostable.

        Most industrial waste, including traditional plastics, takes a very long time to degrade under natural conditions, some taking hundreds or even thousands of years, causing huge harm to the environment. Wood and paper are typical biodegradable materials, and their impact on the environment is obviously more friendly than traditional plastics.

Recyclable materials and the packaging

        Recyclable materials refer to materials that have recyclable value and can be recycled after recycling.

        Common recyclable materials in life include paper, cardboard, glass, plastic, metal, etc. Among them, paper and cardboard take into account the dual characteristics of renewable materials and recyclable materials.

        Recyclable materials play a huge role in energy conservation and environmental protection. Data shows that one ton of waste paper can produce 850 kilograms of recycled paper, saving 3 cubic meters of wood; discarded PET plastic bottles can also be recycled and processed into yarn, which can be used as fabric materials in furniture, automobiles and other industries.

        Recyclable packaging should “can be efficiently and efficiently collected from waste streams through advanced processes, separated, and sorted and concentrated into the precise material streams targeted for recycling, thereby converting Substituting secondary raw materials of sufficient quality to replace virgin materials.”

        "Bioplastics" are made of natural materials, most commonly starch, cellulose, lactic acid and other sugars, such as soybeans, corn, algae, feathers and wood. Cornstarch is the most common material used to make bioplastics, polylactic acid (PLA); another popular bioplastic is PHA, which is made from potatoes and rapeseed. Additionally, natural materials can also be fermented to form bio-based versions of traditional oil-based plastics, such as bio-PET (polyester resin).

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