Topic 2 Plastic packaging types

The availability of different plastics that are versatile and maleable make it a convinient material, but is also why their recycling process is complex.

All plastics do not have the same properties and the same impacts. Recycling needs sorting, not each type of plastic can be recycled, and the ones that can be recycled cannot be recycled with the same process.

Here are the most commonly used plastic types and an overview of their ability to be recycled. Which are the ones that can easily be recycled?

Source: European Union (2013) – Best Environmental Management Practice in the Tourism Sector.

Only 2 types of plastic are easily recycled: PET and PE-HD.

They can be recognized because of the symbol which is molded in the packaging.

Take a time to look at plastic packaging nearby you and read the symbol printed or molded on it.

  • Is it recyclable packaging?

If not recycled, some plastic packaging is burnt in order to recover some energy, which remains a better solution than to dispose of them in a landfill.

In recent years, alternatives plastics have merged to face the criticisms of common plastic, its slew of environmental consequences, like long decomposition rates and damage to natural ecosystems.

Bioplastics based on renewable biomass sources are called biobased. It means that instead of gas or oil, you have cornstarch, straw , vegetable fats or other renewable biomass sources used to produce them. These bioplastics can have the same structure and properties as common fossil-fuel derived plastics and do not biodegrade better than them. However, some bioplastics can have different structures and properties, and be biodegradable.

The term Bioplastic is also sometimes used to define plastic that are biodegradable and so that are compostable, with no reference on the raw material used to produce it. They can be based either on a non-renewable resource or a renewable one.

Important questions when using alternative plastic are:

  • Is it based on renewable biomass sources?
  • Is it compostable?

And maybe even more important:

  • Which its global environmental impact is?
  • Can it be reused or not, and how many times?

Biodegradable refers to the ability of materials to break down and return to nature under external conditions like the degradation by microorganisms, the photodegradation due to UV light or thanks to humidity. A packaging product can be qualified as biodegradable if it decomposes into natural elements that are not harmful for the environment, within a short time after disposal – typically a year or less.

Some biodegradable products can be compostable, but some will require more specific conditions to be degraded or will just be degraded into smaller molecules.

That’s why it is important to read labels and indications on the packaging to know how it can be used and discarded. The worst would be to create and dispatch micro-plastic from a “biodegradable plastic” that would not be fully degraded.

Source: (2021).
Source: ISWA – International Solid Waste Association (2017) – Biodegradable Plastic.

Biodegradable plastic bags are a good way to collect organic waste for biological treatment. Here you can see examples from all over the world:

Biodegradable packaging market is a big market with place for innovation. The Biodegradable Packaging Market was valued at USD 89.57 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach a value of USD 121.38 billion by 2025 at a CAGR of 5.3% over the forecast period (2020-2025).

According to European bioplastics, Biodegradable plastics altogether, including PLA, PHA, starch blends, and others, account for over 55.5% (over one million tones) of the global bioplastics production capacities. The production of biodegradable plastics is expected to increase to 1.33 million in 2024, especially due to PHA’s significant growth rates. Also, the Asia-Pacific region is expected to be a major hub for the bioplastics industry, with 45% of bioplastics were produced in the Asia-pacific region in 2019 [Mordor Intelligence, 2019]

The most well-known biobased packaging is cardboard, based on wood, but a lot of other materials can be used. Biobased packaging has the interest to be based on renewable resources.

Some of the biobased materials have the same properties of plastics and can be used as a plastic alternative. Most of them are made from complex molecules that are extracted from plants or can be produced from chemical reactions from petrol derivatives. This is the case of PLA, which is an alternative to PET, a usual plastic used for food packaging.

Have a look at these 6 examples of biobased materials that can face plastic comparison:

Sugarcane is used to produce a material similar to plastic. The sugar cane plastic packaging is used for example by company bulldog for conditioning shaving products.

UK-based foodware and packaging company CornWare has developed plastic bags and lunch boxes distributed to catering businesses and homes out of corn. Popcorn could also be used to replace polystyrene chips that protect easily breakable goods. Studies have nevertheless shown that this last proposal is not better then polystyrene chips from the environmental point of view.

As one of the easiest natural resources to grow on the planet, mushrooms could be a popular choice in future for a sustainable source of packaging. Evocative is one of the early adopters, creating mushroom-based packaging material IKEA has started using this to replace its polystyrene packaging.

Seaweed can be used to produce several materials, either edible and flexible material, billed as the “water you can eat”, or materials having more strength resistance. Examples are in Algopack (France) and Evoware (Indonesia).

Milk is one of the most consumed food in the world, it’s fair to say – and now, scientists say it can be used to create plastic. A protein found in cow’s milk called casein is commonly used to make the material. Plastic made from casein since in the start of the 20th century was initially found to be too brittle. But in 2017, scientists in the US tested the potential of using casein combined with pectin, a substance found in fruits, to produce plastic for food packaging as it is said to be a good oxygen barrier.

French packaging company Lactips has created plastic pellets for casein, which it says makes the material functional and versatile for use in everything from plastic cutlery to film.

To sum up: Bioplastics & “conventional” plastics

The term “bioplastics” is generally used to refer to bio-based and biodegradable, bio-based and non-degradable plastics and for biodegradable plastics from fossil sources.

What differentiates plastics is the degree to which they are biodegradable, as can be seen in the diagram.

Source: WWF Germany (2019) – Bioplastic and “conventional” plastic examples