Plastic packaging supplies made from landfill-biodegradable material

Many food producers today are going the extra distance to be more environmentally responsible by using sustainable methods to produce their products.

It gives them great pride not only in the quality of their products and the efficiency in making them, but also in how they are perceived by the public. However, all too often, they are let down by the irresponsible packaging materials they use because there are just no other options.

As any operator who ships products knows, the amount of plastic used in packaging is high.  From plastic stretch wrap, plastic bags, plastic packing tape used to seal cartons, to those little ‘Packing Slip Enclosed’ stick on pouches. They are all single use plastic that is mostly discarded. The shipment may have only travelled across town, meaning those items had a useful life of a few hours then thrown away. Even if the freight was shipped interstate, they only had a life of a few days.

Mainstream plastic packaging products are designed to be low cost, convenient and fast to apply with little thought  given to what happens to them afterwards.  And as plastic is inert, these single use items can last 100’s of years in a landfill. Until recently some of this was “recycled” which means it was sent to China for processing rather than be reprocessed in Australia.  However with the introduction of the Chinese sword policy earlier this year, this has come to a stop and Australia is struggling to deal with its plastic waste.

Now using new technology to reduce the amount of plastic accumulating in landfills, an Australian company BioGone, has produced a line of packaging materials that will naturally biodegrade away when the plastic is disposed to a landfill.

Incorporating an organic food source additive into the plastic at the time of manufacture, it makes the resulting plastic product attractive to naturally occurring microbes that exist in modern landfills. The microbes seek out the food and in the process the enzymes they secrete break down the long polymer molecules to the point where they can be digested too.

The resulting products of the biodegradation are a biogas and a biomass (humus). There is no plastic residue left or any toxic constituents. Unlike the older ‘degradable’ plastic inorganic additives that  cause the plastic to break up or fragment into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, the BioGone additives result in the biodegradation of the plastic material.

How long does it take to biodegrade?
This is the top question asked about landfill biodegradable plastics. Biodegradation is a complex process involving many strains of microbes at different stages. What might biodegrade fast in one location may be slower in another facility. A thin wall section like a bag will biodegrade faster than a thicker section like a food container.

A healthy well managed modern landfill with recirculation will have much faster biodegradation rates than a small rural type dump for a landfill.  Microbes are not unlike people.  Give them good food, moisture, and suitable temperatures then they will perform well. One way to explain the biodegradation time is to say the product will biodegrade in a landfill 95 per cent faster than the non biodegradable same product.  Hence if a plastic bag takes 100 years to biodegrade down in a landfill, then the BioGone bag would be expected to biodegrade down in five years.

The landfill-biodegradability is confirmed by ASTM tests performed by independent laboratories in the USA.  The tests are performed in an incubator with landfill sludge and the amount of CO2 evolved off over the duration time of the test is measured and reported on as the percent of biodegradation that occurred.

Compostable wrap makes debut

Australian start-up, Great Wrap, today launches its certified compostable and biodegradable stretch wrap made from plant-based products, a world-first solution to one of the biggest industrial waste challenges.

With plastic stretch wrap encasing almost every pallet sent from business to business around the world – it is estimated the number of pallets sent each year is now in the billions – Great Wrap’s goal is to remove one million tonnes of plastic from the environment within a year.

Great Wrap founder and CEO, Jordy Kay, was working in the wine industry for over a decade when he noticed how much stretch wrap was being used without a plastic-free solution. His experience found that a single winery could use up to 3.5mn metres of plastic wrap every year.

“There’s a culture of concern around single-use plastics that is growing every day with the rise of reusable coffee cups, lunch boxes and even diapers. However, I think consumers would be shocked at how much plastic wrap businesses are using and is ending up in landfill,” said Kay.

Following a successful test to market with a trial biodegradable stretch wrap in late 2019, Kay has self-funded the research and creation of the latest iteration of Great Wrap, a 100 per cent compostable alternative that leaves no trace of residue or microplastics and breaks down in 180 days once it enters a compost pile.

Following the initial test to market, winery, Bobar Wine, trialled Great Wrap. “We hate the amount of waste that can be caused by making wine, so to find an environmentally friendly solution that works just as well as the original made the switch an easy decision,” said the company’s winemaker Tom Belford.

“With each box of Great Wrap a business will save 1.2 kilometres of plastic entering landfill, making the change to Great Wrap is a no brainer for any business looking to make a positive impact,” said Kay.

Great Wrap has been awarded an industrial composability certification from internationally recognised German certified DIN CERTCO. Great Wrap is committed to making an environmental difference and will be partnering with Plastic Bank to remove plastic from coastal ecosystems. For every box of Great Wrap sold, 761 plastic bottles, or 15kg, will be removed.

Defining compostable and biodegradable packaging

Packaging is under the spotlight, and rightly so as we progress towards achieving Australian National Packaging Targets, whereby all packaging, by 2025 should be recyclable, reusable or compostable.

So let’s have a closer look at what is meant by compostable, why it is so often confused with biodegradable and, in a packaging context, what does the consumer do with the empty package?

For compostable packaging to be utilised to its full potential, what needs to change in our waste collection steams? Now that renewable packaging is starting to gain momentum, what does bio-based add to the supply chain and why are bio-based raw materials not necessarily biodegradable?

What is compostable?
Although not many consumers have access to one, we are familiar with compost heaps. The composting process allows us to dispose of leftover foods for example to decompose and creates fertiliser for your soil. When it comes to compostable packaging however, we need to understand that backyard composts have a completely different set of physical conditions than industrial composting facilities – an important distinction.

Industrial composting can cope with a wider range of compostable products as it involves pre-processing – where materials are ground and chipped down into smaller pieces, and in addition, industrial composting provides the higher temperatures needed for more efficient break down. Home composting takes place at much lower temperatures and over an extended time frame, which can typically go up to a year, compared to a matter of weeks for industrial composting.

Compostable packaging will likely not break down in a landfill, as they lack the right conditions, especially in a modern landfill where there will be no oxygen. The only desirable waste stream for compostable packaging is an industrial compost facility.

And while not currently available in all regions of Australia, industrial composting facilities are becoming increasingly widespread with many more councils and private companies providing bins, where food scraps and garden waste can be disposed of together.

However, with a significant amount of education required to advise consumers about what can go into such bins, many council schemes do not permit packaging of any type, in case it results in a negative impact due to the wrong packaging ending up at an industrial composting facility. As the volumes of compostable packaging on the market are relatively small, the impetus to study its compatibility with council schemes is low.

What is Biodegradable?
Everything will degrade over time, but true biodegradation occurs through a biochemical process, with the aid of enzymes produced by naturally occurring microorganisms, both in the presence and absence of oxygen i.e. aerobic or anaerobic, without leaving behind any toxins, yielding only carbon dioxide, water and humus or biomass. Biodegradation is just a natural process taking its course and breaking down materials to their component parts.

Biodegradable packaging can be derived from several sources, including renewable sources – like paper or bioplastics, as well as petroleum-based plastics, which are specifically engineered, to decompose in the natural environment, which is significant at the end of life. A biodegradable plastic will be considered a contaminant in the plastics recycling stream, as on being exposed to moisture and appropriate microorganisms, the biodegradation process will commence.

So, we are clear on what is compostable and what is biodegradable, subtle but important differences when it comes to disposing of the package in the right waste stream. Now let’s not allow ‘bio-based’ to add any confusion. A package derived from a ‘bio’ source, can be designed to be compostable or biodegradable, however it is equally possible that it is not – meaning the package can be disposed of with like-packaging in a recycling stream for example.

Many different renewable ‘bio-based’ ingredients are now used as packaging inputs. Some enable compostable and biodegradable packages, whereas others produce packaging that is identical to that from fossil-based sources hence, the bio-based packaging can be recycled with like polymers. Examples are bio-polyethylene and polypropylene derived from plant based renewable feed stocks, that have properties that cannot be distinguished by the equivalent polymers derived from petrochemicals. The following summarises the two sources of plastic – fossil based and renewable, with their corresponding four attributes:

All these packaging formats are desirable – as long as the consumer has the right information and the right facilities for proper disposal. Currently whilst there are standards and guidelines from organisations such as the Australian Industrial Composting Standard (AS4736) and the Australian Organics Recycling Association, there is no universally recognised symbol for labelling consumer packaging. With the uptake of the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL), this problem could be addressed down the track.

Compostable and biodegradable packaging comes into its own where it enables food waste to be captured in the organics waste sector and this is predominantly at public events where the inputs to the waste stream can be controlled. This is likely to be the area in which we see the most growth in compostable and biodegradable packaging and provided that growth mirrors the capacity of the organics collections to handle it, that’s a positive outcome on all fronts.

 

  Biodegradable Non-biodegradable
Fossil Based Some fossil-based plastics, whilst not common in packaging, are biodegradable.  Examples are polybutyrate adipate terephthalate (PBAT) and Polycaprolactone (PCL) Conventional Plastics like HDPE, PP and PET are derived from fossil sources and whilst not biodegradable, they are recyclable.
Bio-based Polylactic Acid (PLA) is an example of a Bioplastic which made from renewable sources. It is also biodegradable. Plastics like PE, PP and PET can also be derived from renewable sources and hence are known as Bioplastics. This does not mean that they are biodegradable. However, they are recyclable with conventional plastics