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Understanding Bioplastics and Organic Packaging Options

biodegradable plasticsConsumer preferences drive changes within food markets, so producers and packagers are forever tuned-in to shoppers’ wants and needs. Today’s food system reflects increased awareness and commitment to natural and organic products, so suppliers are pushed to provide food that passes public muster.

Certified organic production is only one facet of a consumer trend, which also favors small-batch, natural and craft-production. In order to sync with consumer values, stakeholders at every level of the food supply chain are embracing responsible, naturally-oriented practices.

Packagers’ role is an extension of commitments shared by growers, producers, and wholesalers – as well as their customers. Understanding workable organic packaging strategies is therefore essential for continued success within the industry.

Reflecting Consumer Values

Shoppers buy goods they identify with, so connecting with their personal values is increasingly important to stimulating sales. Responsible production and packaging practices speak to the all-natural movement, which calls for local sourcing, limiting waste and deriving packaging materials from recycled and renewable resources.

Waste Not – At one time, packaging advances centered on increasing effectiveness and utilizing cutting-edge materials. Today’s mandates are more concerned with efficiency and responsible environmental practices. Reducing packaging waste, for example, has led to innovation and targeted efforts to limit the use of packaging materials and maximize recycling. In turn, responsible practices enhance public relations and marketing. The goodwill earned by companies committed to reducing waste ultimately translates to higher sales among consumers with shared value.

The sustainability angle helps modern food producers attract and retain customers, but reducing waste also helps companies save money on materials. Lightweight packaging, for example, minimizes materials used and has less of an impact during production and transport. And using recyclable materials perpetuates the sustainability cycle, reducing each stakeholder’s carbon footprint, while simultaneously supporting green branding strategies.

According to leading waste expert, Bob Lilienfeld, efforts to reduce packaging waste have produced tangible results. By engineering solutions that use less material and turning to advanced plastics, multi-layer films and multi-material cartons, packagers have kept waste levels static, even as the number of households and the level of overall waste have grown. Furthermore, by removing large volumes of paper, glass, metal, and plastic from the waste stream, recyclers have drastically reduced the amount of single-use packaging ultimately bound for landfills.

Bioplastic Innovation – Traditional plastic packaging relies on petroleum-based plastics. These fossil-fuel plastics have served food industries for decades. Alongside the movement to “reduce, reuse and recycle”, materials advances have stepped-up to change the face of sustainable packaging.

Bioplastics furnish alternatives derived from renewable resources like vegetable fats, cellulose, oils, corn starch and biopolymers. In addition to their renewable composition, the substances require less energy to produce, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption.

Packaging applications for bioplastics are limited only by the creativity of contractors and engineers tasked with utilizing the renewable approach. Bags, trays, blister foils and other familiar disposable packages are now manufactured using bioplastics, serving meat, dairy, beverage, and vegetable producers. And recent advances use renewable resources to form copolymers found in solvent-free hot melt packaging adhesives. Various forms of bioplastics are also used outside the food industry, in non-disposable applications once reserved for fossil fuel plastics. Phones, carpeting, insulation and non-metallic piping now contain plastic substances derived from agricultural byproducts.

Not all bioplastics are degradable, but a substantial share of the new form of packaging does offer the additional advantage of breaking down in diverse environments.

Distinct Bioplastics

Various substances comprise bioplastics, including plant oils, cellulose, starch and glucose. Depending upon composition, specific techniques are applied to convert these renewable substances to usable plastics.

Starches – Far and away, the most widely applied forms of bioplastic are made using starch. Representing 50-80% of the world market, the starch component of these plastics typically comes from potatoes and corn. Joined with other materials to create waterproof containers, the thermoplastic starch is commonly found in bags, packing materials, plastic food cups, layered foil and coated paper.

PLA – Polylactic Acid is another promising renewable packaging resource, especially heralded for its similarity to petro-based plastics like polyethylene and polypropylene. In addition, it can be produced using much of the same equipment used to make traditional plastics, reducing industrial costs for makers. To produce PLA, corn, wheat and sugarcane are fermented, before undergoing a polymerization process. PLA is widely applied for food packaging in cups, tins, foils and other forms. Because it softens at a relatively low temperature, it is not the best material for packaging hot foods, unless combined with other heat-resistant materials.

PHB – This bioplastic has similar properties to conventional polypropylene, and is generally produced by processing glucose or starch. Compared to other biodegradable plastics, PHB is less soluble in water. It can be made into clear film and used in the manufacture of glues and rubber.

PA 11 – Polyamide 11 is derived from natural oils. It is not biodegradable and is often called Nylon 11, reflecting similarities to the conventional petroleum-based material.

Polyethylene – Though it is widely known as a fossil-fuel polymer, PE can be produced by fermenting feed stocks like sugar cane and corn. When produced using this method, bio-polyethylene remains non-biodegradable and has physical properties identical to polyethylene made in the conventional manner.

Food supply operators continue to move toward greener solutions, including packaging companies, which utilize technology to reduce their environmental impact. In addition to limiting the amount of plastic and other materials used to bring goods to market, cutting-edge packaging partners rely on bioplastics and engineered solutions to address organic packaging needs.

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