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According to a report published in December 2022 by OCEANA, an international ocean protection organization, retail giant Amazon generated approximately 709 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2021, an increase of 18% compared to 2020. As consumer buying power increases, this figure is set to increase year after year. Furthermore, plastic packaging will also be widely used in the manufacturing industry, food industry and catering industry. According to the statistics from Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the plastic waste generated worldwide has more than doubled from 2000 to 2019, of which nearly two-thirds of the plastic has a use life of no more than five years, and 40% comes from packaging, which is indispensable in daily life. This is incinerated, buried in landfills, or left in the environment to cause pollution, resulting in an environmental catastrophe on Earth. Besides packaging reduction, some packaging is gradually being replaced by eco-friendly packaging. This article will introduce the characteristics of eco-friendly packaging, list the kinds that are currently used or have shown potential for development, and offer a guideline for enterprises to select and use eco-friendly packaging, helping them to understand eco-friendly packaging and how it can replace plastic packaging.
What is Eco-Friendly Packaging?
Compared with conventional packaging, eco-friendly packaging is friendlier for the environment, generates less pollution, and helps to realize a circular economy. Currently, the most common eco-friendly packaging includes the following types, while each type of eco-friendly packaging can be subdivided into several categories:
- Biodegradable packaging: Biodegradable packaging can be broken down by microorganisms after use into water, CO2, and nutrients that are returned to the soil.
- Reusable packaging: Reusable packaging features a thicker and more resilient quality, allowing it to be reused multiple times to increase the packaging’s lifespan.
- Recycled packaging: Recycled packaging is made from recycled plastic derived from PET bottles and old packaging. However, due to the physical properties of plastic (it tends to degrade with each remanufacturing), new plastic materials must be added all the time to make recycled packaging.
- Biomass packaging: Biomass packaging is produced with biomaterials including various plants such as cornstarch, wheat straw, bagasse, and wood. These are sustainable material sources.
Why do Businesses Need to Choose Eco-Friendly Packaging?
Packaging is an integral part of many enterprises’ operations. From the transportation of products after manufacturing to the retail end, consumers require the assistance of packaging. Nonetheless, the business model of using a lot of packaging has a significant impact on the earth’s ecology, including climate change caused by petroleum-based plastics, mountains of waste, as well as packaging pollution and microplastics that are found in the ocean. Hence, it is imperative to adopt eco-friendly packaging immediately. In order to achieve SDGs12: Responsible Consumption and Production, the management of packaging waste is an important ESG-related issue for most enterprises. Utilizing eco-friendly packaging can increase the ESG rating of enterprises in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and waste management, thereby improving their ESG evaluations and fulfilling corporate ESG responsibilities.
What is Biodegradable Packaging?
Biodegradable packaging is made from biodegradable materials that can be broken down by microorganisms after use. Most biodegradable packaging is required to be decomposed completely into substances found in nature after several months. Due to its easy-to-break-down characteristics, it is often used for disposable packaging for vegetables, fruits, beverages, and leftovers.
What are Biodegradable Materials for Packaging?
Conventional packaging materials are mainly plastic, which takes a long time to break down, while biodegradable packaging materials including paper, cornstarch, seaweed, and mycelium are for the most part renewable materials that can be decomposed in a short time.
11 Types of Biodegradable Packaging
Corrugated boxes are one of the most common biodegradable packaging available. Untreated corrugated boxes will soften and crack when exposed to water, and eventually decompose completely. If corrugated boxes are not contaminated by external substances such as oil stains or chemicals, they can be used repeatedly and recycled to make new boxes. However, since paper is derived from wood, it is important to observe whether the boxes are produced using sustainable trees. Cardboard boxes certified by the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) ensure sustainability, while reducing printing and waterproof plastic coating on the boxes ensures decomposability and recyclability after use.
Bagasse bags are a biodegradable packaging that can be composted at home. The light and waterproof bags are made from the leftover plant fiber after sugar cane has been squeezed. The food-grade raw material is suitable for packaging food and kitchen waste. After use, it can be directly buried in the soil as compost.
Kraft paper bags
Kraft paper bags are produced with paper pulp. Since kraft paper bags are neither waterproof nor oil-proof, they are mainly used for packaging bread, letters, and clothes. The non-toxic, odorless, non-polluting bags offer a high-quality texture, making them suitable for the retail industry. However, some kraft paper bags are laminated with a petroleum-based polypropylene (PP) plastic film to become waterproof; these plastic-laminated kraft paper bags are not biodegradable. Meanwhile, the raw material of pulp is wood, thus sustainable forest sources should also be considered.
Polylactide (PLA) bags
The main ingredient of polylactide (PLA) bags is cornstarch. PLA bags have properties similar to conventional plastic bags, with advantages including mature technology and inexpensiveness. However, because they are not resistant to heat and light, PLA bags are not suitable for direct packaging in factories and are mainly used as shopping bags, bread bags, magazine bags, and so on.
Bagasse food containers
Bagasse food containers are made from bagasse, which is waterproof and oil-resistant without the need for additional chemical lamination. The product does not contain chemicals such as PFAS, fluorescent agents, and bleaching agents, thus it can be used for holding food such as steak, potato chips, pasta, and burgers. Bagasse food containers can also hold fresh vegetables, fruits, and meat. After use, simply bury them in the soil for composting at home, and there is no need to consume water to clean the containers.
Edible seaweed film
Edible seaweed film is produced with sodium alginate, a natural thickener in seaweed, which can be used to hold liquid in the form of a sphere. When drinking the beverage, the film can also be ingested, making it natural and safe. Since the seaweed is edible, the film will break down naturally within a few days, so it is usually used for packaging beverages at special events.
Bagasse cups can replace disposable plastic cups or paper cups, and they can be reused after cleaning. Made from bagasse, an agricultural waste, the cups can withstand heat up to 90 °C, perfect for holding coffee, tea, or water. After approximately one year in use, the cups will start to become brittle and disintegrate, completely decomposing and storing CO2 in the soil when buried.
Burlap sacks are woven from jute, a natural fiber. After use, they can be buried in the soil by the roots of newly planted trees to provide a good air-permeable drainage layer, producing organic matter and bacteria to allow the sacks to gradually decompose. Burlap sacks can be used to hold rice, wheat, flour, coffee beans, and so on, and they can also serve as shopping bags or backpacks.
Biodegradable packing peanuts
Packing peanuts are small and compressible, able to penetrate the gaps of the packaging to protect and hold the product and absorb shocks. Traditional packing peanuts are made of low-density polystyrene (PS), which is difficult to recycle. Plant-based biodegradable packing peanuts are instead made of starch, which will melt in water in just a few minutes, making them harmless to the environment and even ingestible by organisms. The product can be used as a cushion for electronic components.
Bagasse egg cartons
Due to bacterial residue on the surface of eggs, egg cartons cannot be reused. Bagasse egg cartons are durable and offer a certain degree of cushioning. After use, they can be buried in the soil to decompose.
Mycelium boxes utilize mushroom roots as a bio-adhesive. When combined with other biodegradable materials such as hemp shells, the boxes offer a considerable thickness that can cushion and protect products by absorbing shock. Also biodegradable after use, the boxes are mainly used for glass bottle packaging, shoe boxes, and other purposes.
Biodegradable Packaging is Good for Food Packaging?
Biodegradable packaging is ideal for food packaging. During the process of storing and transporting food packaging waste, plastic packaging may produce unpleasant odors caused by food residues on the food packaging. Meanwhile, oil must be removed before plastic food packaging can be remanufactured, thus the recycling rate of plastic food packaging is not too impressive, while reusing food packaging is difficult because of hygiene concerns. However, biodegradable packaging can be composted with most food residues after use by disposing of it in household or community composting facilities to foster a circular economy.
5 Steps for Businesses Start Choosing and Using Biodegradable Packaging
An inventory of various types of packaging currently used by enterprises
From procurement, production, and manufacturing to shipping, enterprises require different types of packaging, so taking an inventory of packaging materials currently used is the first step. For instance, a coffee house selling desserts may use packing such as coffee bean bags, flour bags, vegetable and fruit packaging bags, chocolate bags, butter bags, cake boxes, paper coffee cups, and shopping bags. Also, the quantity used is documented, and priority is given to the replacement of the most used items.
Confirm whether it can be suitably replaced with biodegradable packaging
After confirming the packaging currently used, individually check whether it can be suitably replaced with biodegradable packaging. For instance, vegetable and fruit packaging bags will be placed in the fridge together with cake decoration fruits, thus biodegradable packaging bags are suitable here. Chocolate bags may need to last several months, hence using biodegradable packaging bags is not suitable. Cakes stay fresh for no more than seven days, thus biodegradable cake boxes are ideal.
Choose suitable biodegradable packaging
After confirming the suitability of biodegradable packaging, the type of biodegradable packaging can be chosen based on the level of eco-friendliness and budget. For example, if there are industrial composting facilities and waste disposal systems near the sales site, PLA packaging is suitable, otherwise bagasse packaging that can be composted at home should be used. Furthermore, the safety, durability, and aesthetics of the packaging must be taken into consideration.
Formulate a plan to introduce biodegradable packaging
After selecting biodegradable packaging, formulate a plan to progressively implement it. For instance, in regards to “health-oriented” cakes, new biodegradable cake boxes can be used; when purchasing from a fruit supplier, ask for biodegradable packaging or switch to fruit suppliers who use biodegradable packaging, thereby gradually increasing the ratio of biodegradable packaging until all the items in all categories are using biodegradable packaging.
Document and disclose the amount of packaging used
Enterprises can document the amount of biodegradable packaging before and after introducing the plan, and disclose such information to their stakeholders and consumers. In doing so, they can increase the credibility of their brand and ensure enterprises continue to use biodegradable packaging.
6 Benefits of Businesses Using Biodegradable Packaging
Create a good corporate image
Using biodegradable packaging and disclosing the information to consumers allows them to understand through direct consumption experience that, in addition to business operations, aspects such as eco-friendliness should also be considered to create a good corporate image.
Increase the ratio of industrial waste properly disposed of
Industrial waste is one of the major corporate operational issues closely monitored by regulatory agencies in different countries. Utilizing biodegradable packaging that complies with the local recycling system enables enterprises to claim that their packaging can be processed through biomass recycling, which in turn increases the ratio of industrial waste properly disposed of.
Lower GHG emissions
Most biodegradable packaging is made of bio-based materials. While growing, plants absorb CO2, hence the life cycle carbon emissions of biodegradable packaging products are considerably lower than those of petroleum-based plastics, thereby reducing the carbon emissions generated by corporate business activities.
Increase corporate ESG ratings
Waste disposal and GHG emissions are key ESG rating items, hence improving these items will also increase corporate ESG ratings, which will be favorable among consumers and investors.
For more information on the benefits and methods of improving the corporate ESG rating, please read this article:”The benefits of corporate ESG scores“.
Add value to products and brands
According to a report by Business News Daily in 2023, over half of the consumers will consider sustainability when shopping, and online searches for sustainable products have increased by 71% in the last five years, indicating that people are paying more attention to eco-friendly packaging and are more willing to accept higher product prices. Using biodegradable packaging endows products with uniqueness on the market, while incorporating the philosophy of eco-friendliness will add value to products and brands.
Create a sustainable supply chain
As global resources are depleting, environmental laws are also becoming stricter. For example, the EU has passed the Directive on Single-Use Plastics, banning the use of ten types of disposable plastic products including food containers, beverage containers, and plastic bags in EU member states’ markets that can afford alternative solutions. The early use of biodegradable packaging can create a sustainable supply chain to prevent potential future instabilities in procurement and supply, or the abrupt need to fully implement eco-friendly packaging due to regulatory restrictions.
The Packaging Trends in Biodegradable Packaging
As the issues of plastics and GHG emissions come under the spotlight, an increasing number of manufacturers are joining the biodegradable packaging market to develop more multipurpose and affordable biodegradable packaging, hence there is a wide range of mature packaging solutions available. However, the ratio of enterprises using biodegradable packaging is still relatively low; if they begin to use biodegradable packaging now, optimal brand differentiation benefits can be attained. At the same time, if long-term partnerships can be forged with biodegradable packaging manufacturers in advance, enterprises will obtain a more stable product supply as well as the latest biodegradable packaging technology. Replacing conventional packaging with eco-friendly packaging is an inevitable global trend for the future. Consequently, biodegradable packaging is the perfect alternative for disposable packaging in the food, agriculture, and catering industries.