Defining Sustainability: Green Claims and Misconceptions
Degradable, biodegradable, oxo-degradable, compostable, recyclable, bio-plastic, bio-based ….
All these compelling words are found on food packaging advertising the product to be more sustainable, better for the environment, and that with its purchase the consumer has made a guilt-free eco-friendly choice.
Unfortunately, these eco-friendly perceptions are often not the case. Many words are misleading and unsubstantiated, and as a result, there are many misconceptions around sustainable packaging and sustainability at large. The environmental benefits of many of the above terms are little more than those of traditional petro-chemical plastics made from fossil fuels and in some cases even worse.
The problem is semantics, and it is easy to see why. There are so many terms used to advertise a product’s sustainability; a highly complex and multidimensional topic difficult to summarise in a single word. As a result, there is often confusion around the real meaning of such terms, which leads to misinformed purchase and disposal decisions on behalf of the consumer.
It is therefore important for both organisations and end users to have an understanding of the different types of packaging available.
Here we explain some terminology:
Degradable – This is a broad and generic term; something that simply breaks down. The problem with this term is that we cannot infer the time frame nor method of degradation. Paper will degrade in a fire, in water, in the air if left outside and even when stomped upon, regardless of time taken to do so. The term also says nothing about what it will degrade in to. The term can encompass physical degradation without any chemical change. Many things will degrade, including all plastics to some degree at widely varying rates.
Biodegradable – This is something that breaks down naturally; an extension of degrading. Biodegradation must involve break down by living organisms, for example, glass cannot biodegrade but paper can. Time is not a consideration and there are no performance standards, therefore a plastic product that takes 100 years to degrade naturally can be classified as biodegradable.
Oxo-degradable – This is a plastic that breaks down when exposed to an oxygenated environment; essentially degradability but assigned a specific method of degradation. It is not biodegradable as it doesn’t breakdown naturally with living organisms. Instead, these materials have chemical additives that accelerate degradation. Faster breakdown of plastic can be misleadingly advertised as a benefit to the environment, but unfortunately, this is not the case. The independent scientific consensus is that there are no associated environmental benefits with these products and they are in fact a major source of pollution in our seas. Better described as “oxo-fragmentables”, the end result of their breakdown is dust-like, micro-plastic fragments that end up in our oceans. It is for these reasons that oxo-degradables are banned in California. In addition, oxo-degradable plastics will not degrade in a modern, well-managed landfill due to the anaerobic (no air), cool and dry environment it maintains. Without degradation, no carbon will be produced. This can also be misleading; although no carbon emission is advertised as a good thing, it means the waste product remains indefinitely on our planet in landfill and never breaks down.
Compostable – This is a relative term and goes another step further than biodegrading. Fortunately, there are clearly defined performance standards recorded under the International Organization for Standardization (IOS). The main standards are from European and the US, both requiring a product to 1) 100% biodegrade 2) biodegrade within 90 days and 3) produce a completely non-toxic by-product. The Australian standard even requires a product to undergo a worm toxicity test before it can be defined as compostable. For these things to be achieved certain conditions are required, such as a high temperature (on average 65°C) and sufficient moisture. This is where home composting and commercial composting differ. In a commercial composting facility optimal conditions are maintained, thus products are guaranteed to compost within 90 days to meet international standards. In a home compost bin, conditions vary from household to household and not everyone will be able to maintain high heat, therefore the rate of compostability may be slower. This is why we always recommend disposing into commercial composting bins and more specifically, bins that will accept bioplastic. Lastly, it’s important to ascertain the raw materials of a compostable product. Ensure that you buy compostable food packaging made from sustainably sourced plants, not oil, and support renewable resources.
Recyclable – This is a waste material that can be processed for further use. Recycling is a well established and developed industry, more so than composting, and we have efficient municipal and national systems to organise and process most recycling waste. Although “reuse” is a good thing, it is also misleading as some products can only be recycled a finite number of times before it can no longer be used, and the end destination is landfill. Different plastics vary in terms of the number of times they can be recycled, but glass and metal can be recycled indefinitely. Furthermore, one of the biggest problems with recycling is human behaviour. Globally, the overwhelming majority of end of life plastic is not recycled, mostly because consumers don’t understand and/or bother to recycle properly, and the industry will only operate if economically viable. Recycling plants are incentivised to recycle the plastics that are in high demand for revenue purposes.
Bioplastic – This is a potentially misleading term as it can be interpreted in multiple ways. Many organisations define a bioplastic as a plastic that simply biodegrades, meaning that even PBAT, which is 100% oil based could be classified as a bioplastic. Alternatively, a bioplastic can be defined as plastic made wholly or partly from plant material. Bioplastics can be easily marketed to the consumer as better for the environment, yet there could be no environmental benefits associated with the products at all. Ecoware uses IngeoTM bioplastic, a product with many benefits of a plastic resin but made entirely from plants, not oil – a breakthrough innovation. IngeoTM is made from 100% sustainably sourced raw plant material and is commercially compostable to Australasian Bioplastic Association standards and more. It also produces up to 80% less greenhouse gas emissions in its production compared to that of traditional oil-based packaging.
Bio-based – This term was coined to address the confusions around what defined a bioplastic, as outlined above. It aimed to describe a product made from plants that were a more sustainable alternative to fossil fuel-based products. Unfortunately, similar confusions have arisen and the term is potentially misleading as we cannot infer the type of raw plant material used, the composition of that plant material nor its production method. A product can be bio-based but made from paper sourced as a result of deforestation, which is not sustainable. It could also be a combination of plant and oil material. Ensure your food packaging is 100% bio-based made from sustainably sourced plant material.
It should now be clear as to the complexity of defining the sustainability of a product and the difficulty summarising in a single word. Overall, look for a combination of terms “made from plants, not oil”, “100% sustainably sourced” and “commercially compostable” to ensure you are using a more sustainable packaging option. Ecoware offers a range of commercially compostable food packaging solutions made from sustainably sourced and certified plant material. Disposal is equally as important, so we work towards a closed loop economy with our customers, where Ecoware packaging made from plants is turned back into the soil via one of our end of life options to help the growth of the next generation of plants.
The composting industry is currently in the development and growth phase, and although it can be the more sustainable option for food packaging, we certainly have a long way to go. If you have any questions regarding the sustainability of Ecoware products, please give us a call – we are ready to help.