Time to read: 8 minutes

Breaking down biodegradable packaging material considerations

By: Marta Clavero

The biodegradable plastics market is expected to reach $4.2 billion by 2027, growing 13.3% over the next few years. With consumer demand for eco-friendly packaging rising and new regulations limiting single-use plastic use rolling out around the globe, we can expect to see a higher need for biodegradable packaging materials in the coming years than ever before.

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Defining biodegradeable packaging

Biodegradable materials are primarily made of natural sources, like soil, water, additives, marine classified polymers, or compounds.

There are a handful of materials that fall under the biodegradable category, all of which share the same characteristics of decomposition or degradation.

Biodegradable packaging, therefore, is broken down by microorganisms (bacteria or fungi) into water and natural gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. And because they are primarily made of renewable sources, when they decompose, they do not release chemical elements or gases into the atmosphere, thus reducing the carbon footprint.

Differentiating biodegradable & compostable

While not all biodegradable materials are compostable, all compostable materials are biodegradable. The key difference between them comes down to two key factors:

 

1. The base polymer. A compostable product can be converted into compost because it’s a non-fossil base. That is not the case for biodegradable materials. (see graph above)

 

2. Degradation time. If materials degrade in less than 180 days, the product is compostable. If it takes longer, then it is biodegradable.

 

IMCD EXPERT INSIGHT: Because biodegradable materials can take months and often years to degrade depending on the thickness, measuring degradation time brings its own challenges. Often, biodegradability is tested under compostable standards, which is not an accurate way to measure biodegradability, as the end product will not end up in the same place as the compostable at the end of their life.

Selecting biodegradable packaging materials

Whether you’re redesigning or starting from scratch, here are the key perspectives to consider from the start of biodegradable packaging material selection to avoid wasted resources.

Machinery & processing

Every polymer is processed differently. When switching to biodegradable packaging, the machines need to be considered. Ensure that the current machines in place can process the materials at hand or be prepared to invest in new machinery.

Additionally, the final properties of the end-product will be different with biodegradable materials.

Let’s break this down with an example. Imagine we want to develop a plastic bag for a new supermarket brand with the goal of creating biodegradable bags. We start by thinking about the machines. As a compounder, it’s critical that we are able to blend all possible materials with an extruder. As a converter, it’s important that the current machines work with not only biodegradable compounds, but also fillers and masterbatches to optimize products. The questions begin to add up: Do I have the proper dosing systems? Is drying capacity needed? Can I do the printing step myself? Are my current raw materials compatible with this new project?

IMCD EXPERT TIP: Think through how your processing approach will need to change to manage the new materials without sacrificing the quality of the end-product.

Required packaging properties

The end-use of a product needs to be considered from the start. Biodegradable packaging should not compromise functionality, especially considering packaging is designed to protect what’s inside.

 

Consider factors like:

   -  Temperature; if the packaging needs to withstand extreme temperatures (oven or freezer)
   -  Oxygen barrier; if the packaging needs to preserve food

 

At this stage, it’s critical to consider the final use of the plastic bag. Is it going to be used to carry a lot of weight? Will it be printed with any logo afterwards? What thickness is needed to balance the cost and performance? Is transparency needed? These will all play a role in your biodegradable packaging material selection.

IMCD EXPERT TIP: Make a shortlist of the biodegradable materials that can meet the desired requirements. Need some support? Contact or packaging solution experts for a consultation.

Testing

Testing required for certifications for biodegradable packaging vary around the world, with some countries being more advanced than others. But although certification processes vary based on the region, the standards are similar: testing for degradation time and environment necessary to decompose.

As discussed, biodegradable materials take longer to prove that they are biodegradable. The amount of time needed to start seeing results in testing can serve as a barrier to market.

Now, the plastic bags need to comply with the standards determined in the initial product definition. Are the products already certified? Are the materials certified? Are there multi-layer structures that will require additional time for testing?

IMCD EXPERT TIP: Have your raw materials certification in place to speed up your go-to-market, and if you’re using a multi-layer structure, consider that all layers will be factored in your testing and certification process.

Applicable regulations

With new regulations rolling out around the world, the requirements of biodegradable packaging are ever-evolving. New releases from the FDA, migration tests, NIAS, allergens, etc. are constantly changing how biodegradable packaging is, and can be, designed.

Now, consider where the plastic bag will be used and in which markets. Will food contact occur? Are migration tests needed? Are there local requirements in place about percent of organic content?

 

IMCD EXPERT TIP: Remain up-to-date with all your countries requirements to anticipate new regulations rolling out.

Consumer behaviour

Consumers open an average of 7 to 10 items of packaging per day. Packaging can affect consumers behaviour when purchasing, using, and disposing of the product. There is a lot of information about what's inside the packaging, but what about the packaging itself?

Once we consider packaging from the consumer’s perspective, there’s a mix of marketing and added value.

Lastly, factor in the consumers' role in the plastic bags. Will the consumer pay for this extra value? Is this bag going to make an impact on the way they use the product? Are they going to have the same experience as with a standard plastic bag? And finally, how will this product be disposed of? Are there concerns this product will end up in the wrong place?

IMCD EXPERT TIP: Consider three consumer factors when selecting the proper material: reasons for buying biodegradable packaging, appearance and usability, and how to dispose of the packaging (its end-of-life).

Communicating end-of-life

Biodegradable packaging needs to be specially sorted by the end-user, and although the industry is making clear shifts towards biodegradable packaging, consumers are still confused about the nuances and their role in the disposal. And with greenwashing making headlines around the globe, it’s no surprise that consumers are unclear.

As a result, biodegradable packaging ends up in the wrong composting systems, in landfills, or in locations that do not have the right conditions for their decomposition. With biodegradable materials, they don’t take thousands of years to degrade; when we put them in the right places, we reap the benefits.

To make strides towards achieving a circular economy, businesses need to prioritize educating the end-user to ensure materials are properly disposed of.
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About Marta Clavero

With more than 20 years working with advanced materials, Marta has a wide range of experience across all areas of thermoplastics, including the design, development, analysis, and application. Marta is a sales manager based in Spain and also leads the global Packaging Expert Team. Her experience  in wastewater treatment, papermaking, oil & gas, mining, agriculture, cosmetic polymer ingredients, textiles, and other derivative sectors has prepared her to support IMCD customers in developing innovative solutions that differentiate their products on the market.

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