Issues Magazine

Waste – Eco-Friendly Food Packaging: Is Supply Outstripping Demand?

Issues 92: Waste

Issues 92: Waste

By Michael J. Hubbert

Biodegradable materials are still one of the buzz words of plastics developers, but are consumers really interested in biodegradable plastics packaging or is it a niche industry without a growing market? What are the recent product developments and does the commercial return justify the effort?

Although still very much a niche industry, development and manufacture of biodegradable plastic materials continues apace. But is it an industry without a growing market? Are consumers really interested in biodegradable (or degradable) plastics for packaging, particularly if it would cost them more? Could this be the reason for lack of growth?

I think so, and so do some of the manufacturers. In recent years, manufacturing emphasis has changed from costly but completely biodegradable materials to hybrids with a non-biodegradable component (which in some cases may help to reduce the cost). So-called “green” plastic materials have also been introduced. Although not biodegradable, a significant amount of the raw materials used to make these plastics is sourced from renewable resources. Even so, there doesn’t appear to be much interest among consumers, particularly in Australia.

In other parts of the world – Europe, China, Japan, South America and, to a lesser extent, the US – these hybrid materials are beginning to capture the attention of consumers. In Brazil, grades of PE and PP with material components made from sugar cane waste are available. In the US, one of the largest beverage manufacturers has committed to using a PET plastic with some components sourced from renewable plant materials. The bottles were introduced to the Australian market last year with very little fanfare and even less acknowledgement by consumers. In Japan, a large vehicle manufacturer has developed a polyester material with some components coming from plant materials.

But the news is not all rosy. There are claims in the US that biodegradable plastics made from corn will take up too much of the arable land needed to grow food crops. And while some communities in the US are voting to make their towns “plastic shopping bag free”, other interest groups are taking the communities to court to resist or overturn such bans. Recently, the California State Legislature failed to pass a proposed statewide ban on single-use carryout bags for the sixth year running and voted against a ban on polystyrene takeaway food containers for the fourth straight year. In Illinois, the State Governor has vetoed a bill proposing a mandatory recycling scheme in the state for single-use plastic bags. It seems that only the lawyers are smiling.

Recently I visited Coles Bay on Tasmania’s east coast. Coles Bay claims to be Australia’s first plastic shopping bag-free town – a goal not too difficult to achieve in a tiny village with just two mini-marts. Yes, there they were – heavy duty brown paper check-out bags for the shoppers to take their fruit, vegetables and other goods home. But, of course, they don’t count plastic fresh food bags or garbage bags in that ban. There were plenty of them around.

Whilst in Tasmania I picked up a copy of the booklet Healthy Oceans for a Healthy Future. Funded by the Australian Government and aimed at school-age children, it contains useful information on marine debris, pollution, plastics in the food chain, overfishing and marine pests.

But among that useful information are some very questionable statements and claims. For instance, under the heading “How long until it biodegrades?”, plastic grocery bags are listed as taking 20–1000 years, and waxed milk cartons are said to take 3 months. Well … the milk cartons we’ve been using for the past 30-odd years are polyethylene coated (not wax) and they take much longer than 3 months to biodegrade; and grocery bags are very unlikely to take 20 (and certainly not 1000) years to disappear. Plastic beverage holders are said to take 400 years to biodegrade and disposable nappies 450 years. These, too, are wild estimates.

Misinformation and simple mistakes like these have created confusion amongst consumers and in the marketplace. Those who know that some “facts” are wrong will begin to doubt other claims that they cannot verify, but that may be entirely correct.

The booklet also claims that Australians use 3.9 billion plastic shopping bags per year. In 2002 that figure was estimated at 3.8 billion per year, so there’s been virtually no increase in the past 10 years despite significant population growth. Consumers must be doing something right because plastic bag-free towns certainly haven’t been responsible for holding usage practically level. The booklet doesn’t acknowledge this.

I’ve read claims that the useful life of a plastic shopping bag is around 20 minutes. That’s certainly not the case in our household. We re-use them for a variety of things, including as bin liners. It saves buying new garbage bags. The emphasis should be on re-using them rather than banning them, particularly when the alternatives are paper bags, which don’t perform too well when wet, or the heavy (and plastic) reusable “green” bags we often see in supermarkets. When thinking of resource reduction we have to consider how many conventional plastic check-out bags would use the same fossil fuel resources as one of the so-called “green” bags.

And then there are the oxo-degradable plastics used primarily in this country to make polyethylene mailing bags for magazines and check-out bags for some second-tier supermarkets. Yes, they do degrade … eventually. But initiation of the degradation process doesn’t start until some 18 months to two years after the bags are manufactured – probably a long time after they enter the litter stream.

But if you do the right thing and reuse them to store something, you will probably go back some time later to find a little pile of plastic flakes. And that is something the Healthy Oceans booklet spends a lot of time on. The claim is that plastic eventually breaks down into pieces the size of phytoplankton, which fish and other marine animals eat. Over time, the plastic pieces build up in the fish and are eventually eaten by humans.

There’s also a recycling issue. In the US, an oxo-degradable form of PET was devised for beverage bottles. Recyclers were immediately up in arms, claiming the degradable bottles in the recycle stream would adversely affect their recycled PET products. Another one for the lawyers.

The “reuse or recycle” mantra to save non-renewable resources is a good one. But then we come up against the local councils and their recyclers, who are dead against all sorts of potentially recyclable materials from entering their recycling streams. My local council bans any sort of plastic film, including the dreaded plastic check-out bags, any form of PET not in the shape of a bottle, any food packaging or plastic wrapping, and any polystyrene. Specifically the council states, “Plastic items which you can scrunch or break easily in your hand must NOT go into the recycle bins – e.g. biscuit/meat trays, glad wrap and bubble wrap”.

A recent research report into the recycling behaviours of Melburnians found that the majority are “enthusiastic recyclers”. However, it found that recyclable packaging, paper and cardboard still constituted up to 20%, or approximately 150,000 tonnes, of waste sent to landfill every year (http://tinyurl.com/8trjc2k).

It’s no wonder that there is confusion amongst the general public and, indeed, amongst pressure groups about what is harmful to the environment, what can be done to reduce our dependence on non-renewable resources, and the impact if we don’t take some action.

You can see why am I not surprised that there is little consumer demand in this country for eco-friendly packaging and that those who are actively developing useful materials are having to look offshore for markets and customers.