4 July 2022
Plastic is the best material out there for packaging, it’s also the most toxic material humans have created to package everyday products. As businesses face continuing pressure from consumers and watchdog groups to decrease their carbon footprint, plastic consumption and general environmental impact – it’s no surprise that most brands are looking at their packaging as a way to win over their two biggest critics in one go.
What’s So Complicated About Plastics?
Plastics are composed of polymers which are complicated chains of chemically formed monomers. The various types of plastics range from:
The issue comes when these plastics are jettisoned and begin to decompose (a process which can take thousands of years to achieve). Due to being man-made, the chemicals within the polymers leak toxic chemicals into the environment in which they are breaking down. As well as leaking chemicals, plastics also degrade into microplastics which can be ingested by animals and carried into the food chain, which affects human consumption and health.
The impact of synthetic plastics in the sea has already been discussed in our article Plenty Of Fish In The Sea: Ocean Plastic but the impact which synthetic plastics have on land are:
Let’s Get One Thing Straight
First of all – before we compare synthetic plastics to bioplastics – let’s get one thing straight: biodegradable plastics and bioplastics are not the same thing.
Biodegradable plastics have been engineered to break down more quickly through adding chemical compounds to petroleum based materials, which enables an increased molecular breakdown. Bioplastics are plastics that are made from biological materials and biodegrade naturally without releasing toxins, (that’s the theory anyway).
Biodegradable plastics are made of petroleum-based materials with additional additives that improve the biodegradable qualities of the plastic. Types of biodegradable plastics include photodegradable plastics, (plastics which biodegrade when exposed to sunlight – possible because one molecule in a chemical bond is reactive to sunlight, therefore breaking the entire bond once that single molecule has broken down) and oxo-biodegradable plastics, (plastics which biodegrade when exposed to oxygen).
Choosing biodegradable plastics might sound like the perfect solution to lose the plastic stigma in your packaging and get a better reputation with that all-important green buzzword ‘biodegradable’. But biodegradable packaging is only effective on carbon emissions if you are getting rid of the packaging properly – you might think the way in which your customers get rid of your product doesn’t have anything to do with your business and so long as you label it biodegradable with a recycling icon it’s all okay. Unfortunately for you it isn’t and watchdogs would label this greenwashing, (check out our article on how your company can avoid greenwashing here).
When it comes to your brand, it’s better to be found in the green bin rather than the black bin. A lot of the issues surrounding recycling are to do with the way in which local authorities handle it and the lack of appropriate facilities for breaking down components of packaging. However as the maker of the packaging, your company does have a certain responsibility when it comes to the biodegradable properties of the materials – and how accurately you portray these. A lot of companies are putting recyclable icons on packaging which is not recyclable or, (as with biodegradable plastics) they are misleading consumers as to the capabilities of the packaging. In this article we’ll be discussing the pros and cons of bioplastics vs synthetic plastics with a view to explaining why one is better than the other for your brand in the long run.
Bioplastics are either partly or fully made from biodegradable, natural materials. Bioplastic materials can include cornstarch, sugar beet, first generation feedstock, PE, PET or PVC. The importance of bioplastics is essential when it comes to finding ethical alternatives to plastic without compromising on affordability and the properties which plastic has given the packaging industry.
The two types of bioplastics are:
– Made from starch, maize, corn or sugarcane and also known as starch-based bioplastics
– Cheapest bioplastic on the market.
– Made of microorganisms, sometimes genetically engineered. The main molecular makeup of PHAs are intracellular microbial polyesters synthesized via archaea and bacteria.
The issue with bioplastics is that sometimes they don’t biodegrade as intended, due to being a polymer compound (sometimes with as little as 20% natural material) made up of various ingredients – when they break down they sometimes leave a residue that isn’t as natural as the dextrose it was formed with might lead consumers to believe. This means that bioplastics – while being an amazing leap in terms of scientific material breakthroughs – still need to be refined as at the moment they are only industry-compostable. Meaning they can be recycled within the industry which they were created for, (e.g. recycled from a plastic cup into another plastic cup) but not thrown into the nearest ditch and found a week later in little biodegradable pieces being munched by worms.
Here is a basic summary of the process of creating bioplastics:
The issue with synthetic plastic is not that it’s a bad material, it’s the most effective and flexible of all the materials out there. The issue is that there are so many complicated fusion components required to get the end product that recycling any product or packaging that is made of synthetic, crude-based polymers is virtually impossible. The other issue is that there is no ethical way to get rid of them once they have been used.
So what is synthetic plastic and how is it different from bioplastics? Well, synthetic plastic is created from man-made polymers that are developed from crude-based materials. The polymers are created with the intention that they be strong and lasting, able to withstand extreme temperatures as well as difficult shipping. Most plastics are made from a polymer known as polyethylene.
“Synthetic polymers are man-made polymers. Polymers are those that consist of duplicate structural units known as monomers. Polyethylene is considered to be one of the simplest polymers, with ethene or ethylene as a monomer unit while the direct polymer is known as high-density polyethylene-HDPE. Synthetic polymers are produced with different types of reactions. Polyethylene, which is synthesized by reproducing ethylene monomers, is an additional polymer. It may have as many as 10,000 monomers wrapped in long chains. Polyethylene is crystalline, translucent, and thermoplastic — that is, it is soft in the heat. It is used for coverings, packaging, molded parts, and the construction of bottles and containers. Its molecules may consist of 50,000 to 200,000 monomers.”
Synthetic plastics are a less popular choice for brands due to their makeup being constructed of such a large amount of complicated polymers that are not biological in the first place. The intention when making plastics (specifically focusing on polyethylene) is that they are indestructible. This is great for your product packaging, but not so great when it comes to biodegrading and leaking toxic substances into the environment as a result of using something which is man-made.
In terms of industry growth, in 2021 the bioplastics market in the US was valued at 7.6 million dollars. By 2028 it’s estimated that the global market value of bioplastics will be 15.55 billion US dollars. Bioplastics are going to increase their influence in the plastic market, however this will not have much of an impact on synthetic plastic market growth according to industry speculation (which will continue to grow within the decade by 3.2%). At the end of the day it is a brand choice which type of plastic is used for packaging, at the moment polyethylene is cheaper and easier to produce than PLA or PHA – however experts are hoping to be able to level the price of bioplastics to the same per barrel of crude oil, making the two types of plastics more competitive within the market.
There is no need to worry about losing the quality of your packaging when you can maintain the quality while implementing sustainable materials. From bioplastics to biodegradable sustainable alternatives, BPAK has got you covered for every eventuality, contact us today to find out more.