Story | 06/27/2024 09:40:45 | 4 min Read time

True or false: Bio-based packaging is biodegradable

The answer: It depends on the materials. Biodegradability is an important feature in regions where recycling opportunities are limited.

Not all bio-based materials are biodegradable. Biodegradability depends on the types of packaging materials used and the specific packaging composition.

There are clear and strict standards on what packaging material can be labelled as biodegradable and disposed for example as biowaste or are home compostable. Many products by UPM Specialty Papers, for example, are certified as compostable.

What’s the difference between biodegradable and compostable packaging?

On a general level, these two mean pretty much the same thing: that microbes can break the material into organic matter. 

When it comes to packaging requirements, compostability means that the material has to disintegrate into non-toxic, fertile compost within testing conditions that include a specific time period. Simply, the material must become something plants can use for growth, which is tested via cultivation experiments.

Compostable materials can be either industrially compostable or suitable for home composting. The main differences are the temperature needed and the time decomposing takes. Industrial composting is faster (6 months vs. 12 months) and is done at a higher temperature (58 °C). The higher temperature is used to reduce the duration required and relies on different microbes that perform at the elevated temperature conditions.

Several UPM Specialty Papers’ packaging and label papers are certified as being industrially and home compostable according to the European standard. A recent addition is the compostable label face papers for fruit and vegetable stickers.

On a general level biodegradable and compostable mean pretty much the same thing: that microbes can break the material into organic matter.

Shouldn’t all packaging be recyclable rather than biodegradable?

Recyclability is key, but biodegradability is a great advantage in cases where the packaging cannot be recycled. For example, some food containers or wrappings may get so greasy and stained when used that they are no longer suitable for recycling. To prevent litter, it would be beneficial if the consumer could just place the packaging in the compost bin.

Biodegradability is a particularly important feature in countries and regions where recycling facilities and opportunities are limited and where there is a risk that the packaging ends up in landfills and nature. Thus, on a global scale, biodegradability is a very relevant feature. As an example, a range of UPM barrier papers are certified as compostable and biodegradable

Biodegradability is a particularly important feature in countries and regions where recycling facilities and opportunities are limited.

Is bioplastic packaging biodegradable?

The word bioplastic may be misunderstood and confusing as it is used for various types of material.

When it comes to recyclability and plastics, there are biodegradable plastics that are made from fossil feedstocks and also non-biodegradable plastics that are made of bio-based raw materials. This characteristic is dependent on the chemical bonds in the polymer chain. An example of a biodegradable plastic based on renewables is polylactide, which can be produced from wood-based sugar. 

On the other hand, some plastics made with UPM’s wood-based bionaphtha are not biodegradable at all, just like plastics made from fossil oil-based naphtha. Then again, it is these similar qualities – durability, flexibility, and recyclability – that make the bionaphtha-attributed plastic a great alternative to fossil-based plastic, just more sustainable.

There are biodegradable plastics that are made from fossil feedstocks and non-biodegradable plastics that are made of bio-based raw materials.
 

These UPM experts were interviewed for the story: Leena Kunnas, David McCann, Gerd Unkelbach

 

*The term bio-based is used here for all materials that are produced using substances derived from living organisms such as plants (source: Collins Dictionary). Many bio-based or bio-attributed plastics are chemically identical to fossil-based plastic and are not, for example, biodegradable.

 
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