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Biodegradable Plastics

TYPES OF FOOD-PACKAGING PLASTICS

There are two general types of food packaging plastic materials, fossil-based plastics and bio-based and biodegradable plastics. Fossil-based plastics are derived from petroleum. Bio-based and biodegradable plastics are derived from natural materials that readily break down in the environment.

Bio-based and biodegradable plastics is a phrase representing two differing attributes, but the two terms, bio-based and biodegradable, are often used in conjunction with one another. When the terms are paired as modifiers with the term plastics, the phrase bio-based and biodegradable plastics denotes
a composition deriving from mainly natural substances that break down over time, with the environment, the materials’ composition, and the time-frame all factoring in how quickly the break-down occurs.

FOSSIL-BASED PLASTICS

Fossil-based plastics have been around for many years and have provided tremendous benefits to the food packaging and food services industries in terms of food preservation and food shelf-life. But fossil based packaging plastics have negative environmental impacts and for this reason packaging industries,
including the food-packaging and the food service industries, have been working to reduce the use of fossil-based packaging materials.

Since the 1960s, packaging industries like the food-packaging and the food service industries extensively used petroleum-based synthetic polymers, commonly termed plastics—such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET),
polyurethane (PUR).

These fossil-based plastics have become the most tenacious polluters of the environment worldwide. The main environmental impacts are these: 1) they leave a high carbon footprint, thereby contributing to global warming; 2) they damage the air, becoming toxic when combusted; and 3) they have detrimental effects on wildlife, waterways, and other natural spaces. In addition, they can take decades to thousands of years to decompose.

BIO-BASED AND BIODEGRADABLE PLASTICS

Bio-based and biodegradable plastics are relatively new plastic materials used by the food packaging and the food services industries. As these newer bio-plastics degrade, they emit a very low amount of carbon, so they leave a very low carbon footprint. They are overall much more environmentally friendly
than conventional plastics. Because these materials are much less harmful to the environment than fossil-based plastics, their use has been on the rise.

Small amounts of fossil-based plastics are still used in making some bio-based and biodegradable plastics, but the amount of fossil-based plastic used in making bio-based and biodegradable plastics continues to be reduced with the invention of new material compositions (polymers). As a result, bio based
and biodegradable plastics leave significantly less plastic waste to damage the environment than do fossil-based plastics and their time to decompose is reduced to three to six months instead of decades to thousands of years. Some bio-based and biodegradable plastics are made without using any
fossil-based plastics. Their usefulness to the food packaging and the food services industries is dictated by their material composition, which consists of blended substances and are called called polymers.

Types of bio-based and biodegradable polymers are polylactic acid (PLA), biodegradable starch-based plastics, cellophane, biodegradable and bio-based polyesters, drop-in bio-based materials, polyethyline furanoate (PEF) and others. New bio-based and biodegradable polymers are under development.

Like conventional fossil-based plastics, bio-based and biodegradable plastic packaging products are made up of various physical configurations with varying properties, and, as a result, it is not always simple to compare one type’s sealing and packaging benefits with another type’s. Likewise, their
biodegradability varies depending on the ratio of their blends (polymers) of bio-based and fossil-based derivatives, the environment surrounding them, and their own condition.

Though their compositions vary, bio-based and biodegradable plastic polymers are generally made up of cellulose, starch, sugar, vegetable oils, and other materials that are mostly renewable in nature. Organisms in the environment—like bacteria, algae, and fungi—act on the bio-based plastics, degrading
or decomposing them when certain environmental conditions are met and working in conjunction with the polymers’ chemical composition and the polymers’ condition.

BIO-BASED AND BIODEGRADABLE PACKAGING APPLICATIONS

Some concerns arise in the food industry with regard to bio-based and bio-degradable packaging plastics. These concerns have to do with the bio-based plastics’ uses, packaging attributes, shelf-life, food protection and safety levels.

We offer a selection of biodegradable plastic material options for use with creating biodegradable packaging, and compostable packaging. Below is a table of the most commonly used bio-based plastics, their uses, their packaging attributes, their shelf-life, and their established safety levels.

Biodegradable plastic packaging use chart.

Works Consulted
Greene, J. P. (2014). Sustainable Plastics: Environmental Assessments of Biobased, Biodegradable. John Wiley & Sons.
Moura, Isabel Gonçalves de and Arsénio Vasconcelos de Sá, Ana Sofia Lemos Machado Abreu, Ana Vera Alves
Machado (2017) Bioplastics from agro-wastes for food packaging applications. Food Packaging, Alexandru Grumezescu, Editor. Academic Press: Pages 223-263,
Oever, Marien van de, Karin Molenveld, Maarten van der Zee, and Harrietter Bos (2017). Bio-based and biodegradable plastics—Facts and figures. No. 1722. Wagneingen Food & Biobased Research.