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Is biodegradable packaging all it’s cracked up to be?

Biodegradable packs have a “down” as well as an “up” side, stresses the IOP’s packaging training manager

Off you go on holiday expecting the beautiful, idyllic island paradise, white sand and blue sea promised by the brochure. I have just returned from my annual holiday, saddened that an otherwise beautiful tropical island was spoiled by a dreadful litter problem, with bottles and cans strewn around ruining the view. It was hard to believe the island I visited, where the only real income is from tourism, should allow such a mess.

When people use the word “litter”, they usually mean waste packaging, thrown casually away by consumers too lazy to dispose of it properly, and the truth is the vast majority of litter in our streets is packaging that has fulfilled its purpose of protecting and promoting the product it contains. At the end of its useful life, it clearly needs to be dealt with properly.

Is biodegradability the answer? Well, looking at the copy on some packs you get the strong impression “biodegradable” packaging can reduce the amount of litter. A sandwich pack, made from board with a PLA window, gleefully states it is made from sustainable materials and is biodegradable, or “compostable”. Carrier bags have been available for some time that disintegrate after some months. In both cases however there is a substantial price to pay – the loss of the post-use recoverable energy intrinsic in the packaging materials.

I have no qualms about manufacturers looking for alternative materials for packing their products, but do think we are in danger of allowing the public to believe that if something is biodegradable it is good for the environment per se and they can consequently go on littering because the litter will just disappear (in a puff of CO2 and methane – greenhouse gases both).

Such thinking, and lazy marketing, are just as irresponsible as the littering problem. What is vital is to make people realise used packaging has a value and a further contribution to make through recovery of its energy via incineration.

There are moves afoot to label products with a carbon footprint measurement, so consumers can make a judgment on the environmental impact. Perhaps we should add an on-pack recoverable energy value in the same way we include the amount of calories the product contains. This way we can emphasise that all waste has a value that shouldn’t be squandered. If this can be achieved, we can go on holiday safe in the knowledge that beaches will be clear of litter. Just your air travel carbon footprint to worry about now!

IOP; The Packaging Society’s Ian Morris