Landfill-biodegradable packaging materials

Why do we do it? It is a question often asked many business owners. Why go through all the ordeal of running a business and the stress and anxiety it can often bring to owners? Do people do it for the profit they hope to get? Or is it the only field they know how to work in and think they have no other viable options? Or perhaps it is a more idealistic desire to step into a perceived void and make a difference.
The latter is why the owners of Biogone started their business. They had been involved in the clean-up of plastic litter for several years as volunteers and saw what a huge problem plastic waste was rapidly becoming. A product that is cheap to produce, lightweight, durable, and waterproof making it ideal for packaging. But it has a very long-life problem that is causing numerous dire problems worldwide. Originally manufacturers did not want talk about the legacy issue.
However, as time went on, more and more of it accumulated, the problems started to get increasing mainstream attention. The packaging manufacturers came under the spotlight and felt increasing pressure to change their designs or materials from design for functionality to design for life. Design for life now includes factoring in how the packaging, once it becomes waste, is to be taken care of.
The many advantages offered by plastic has made this a difficult problem for many producers and most still avoid the issue. The owners of Biogone took the problem head on and have developed a range of packaging supplies that will biodegrade away when disposed of to a modern landfill.

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.

Luxury Melbourne hotel reaping the benefits of BioGone products

The Sofitel Melbourne On Collins is synonymous with luxury, glamour and timeless elegance.  It is also a huge supporter of many Biogone products, utilised in areas across the hotel operation.

The Hotel is a certified ISO 14001:2015 Environmental Management System organisation. To comply with this international standard, they consistently need to challenge themselves to find new ways to reduce their carbon footprint.  For the Sofitel, Biogone was a perfect fit, especially in assisting the hotel in becoming more sustainable in their various outlets.

Johanna Bouniol, quality, risk and environment manager at the Sofitel, recently shared the Biogone story.

“We have been using Biogone’s Landfill-biodegradable products since July 2019,” she said.  “We use their disposable gloves and Landfill biodegradable cling wrap, which is BPA free, in our banquets, restaurant, lounge and Club areas for both cleanliness and food safety.”

The hotel staff and the entire Accor group are determined to reduce our waste and be an ecofriendly hotel. So when we challenged our kitchen and purchasing staff to find new suppliers that fit this goal, we had many different options. Biogone became the supplier of choice when we looked at the biodegradable plastics it produces and the effect it has on landfill.

Biogone is a good fit with Sofitel Melbourne in the products they create and distribute.  Hotels are not just a place for guests to sleep in, we actually service more guests per day in our conference and events areas, restaurants, bar and Club lounge. The impact on landfill from these areas and in particular the use of single use gloves and cling film is quite extensive. With plastic taking 450 years to break down, the team and hotel were motivated for a change.

A trial period was set up with Biogone products where the hotel placed key targets on the quality of the products. Biogone products – the gloves and cling film surpassed all expectations and targets and have implemented across all outlets.

“Our BioGone representative has been a great partner and active contact since the beginning. He has worked alongside our team to ensure a high level of understanding of the products and operation’s needs. For example, originally, their glove offerings were only in black and green colour,”  Bouniol said. “As per our food safety guidelines, our kitchen teams have to wear blue gloves. John immediately found a solution to meet our request and created landfill biodegradable blue gloves for us. Furthermore, last September, we organised an event where we invited key F&B people from all our AccorHotels properties in Victoria. This event was to present to them some of our Eco friendly initiatives. It was a great opportunity to present the Biogone products to all our Accor properties. When we asked Biogone to be part of this event, they didn’t hesitate a second and were a great supporter of the initiative.”

Companies like Biogone give the opportunity for businesses to be more sustainable while keeping the same quality of products. It is working alongside industry to assist them with their environmental needs.

The hotel reports that Biogone offers a range of products that are as good as non-biodegradable plastic items, but its products will biodegrade in landfills within a few years.

Redesigning packaging with reduce, reuse, recycle in mind

As a consumer, you might have heard about the “Waste Hierarchy” and the 5Rs. From a consumer perspective they are:
• Refuse – do not purchase unwanted items.
• Reduce – eliminate single-use packaging wherever possible. This means declining plastic coffee cups, shopping bags, straws and buying products that are sustainable.
• Reuse products more than once. Purchase reusable water bottles, keep-a-cups, and recyclable shopping bags
• Recycle – ensure that you place your products in the recycling bins and purchase products that are recyclable. Look for products that are using the new Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) to better understand the true recyclability of the materials.
• Repurpose – purchase products that are made from recycled materials – consciously purchase bags, shoes, furniture, jewellery that you know is made from recycled content.

Mindsets have shifted over the last few years, and globally consumers are actively driving brands and their packaging departments to supplement sustainable packaging design to incorporate the 5Rs and to redesign with environmental impacts in mind.

Packaging technologists are being asked to reconsider the outcomes of their packaging design all the way across the supply chain from manufacturing to recycling, and also consider a closed-loop and more circular approach. Packaging design can no longer be linear.

When discussing the waste hierarchy from a packaging design perspective, reduce, reuse and recycle are the three most important areas for long-term changes as they are the preventative measures with the highest level of impact.

Achievable steps for packaging technologists can include redesigning the shape and size of a product, reducing thickness and weight of materials, shifting to recyclable materials, and developing a closed-loop system for products. However, any adaptations to the packaging design, structure and form must not compromise the ultimate purpose of packaging, which is maintain the ability to protect, preserve, contain, communicate and transport a product to the consumer. First and foremost, packaging must remain fit-for-purpose before any structural changes are made to a pack. The AIP encourages all packaging teams to undertake a lifecycle assessment where possible before any pack is altered. A redesign feature of packaging that consumers are embracing is reuse whereby a customer can refill their products using the same packaging. It is important to note that reusable containers have less impact on the environment than one that is single use. Packaging technologists need to re-imagine their packaging for continued use and the ability to have multiple uses for the consumer.

Consumers are also driving the focus to what is really happening with packaging and the end of life. Packaging technologists are now being asked to stop and review their packaging and find out whether it is actually being recycled or landfilled in the country it is sold in. The availability of the APCO PREP tool enables this decision making. In addition, if the material is capable of being recycled in the country in which it is sold, then consumer waste and greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced across the lifespan of the product.

This in turn achieves the 2025 National Packaging Targets that all brands are working towards.

If the material is unable to be recycled, then look at the possibility of moving to a recycled content, and even the use of renewable resource raw materials. Once again, the AIP urges consumers to undertake a full lifecycle assessment if possible, before moving to recycled content to determine if this is in fact the best decision for a product.

A recent example of the reuse, refill and recycle concept that has considered the product all the way through the supply chain is Cif ecorefill. Unilever announced on its global website the launch of Cif ecorefill, the new at-home technology that allows consumers to refill and reuse their Cif spray bottles for life. Cif has worked to create a no-mess solution, becoming the first household cleaning brand to do so with this pioneering twist and click refill design. Made with 75 per cent less plastic, Cif ecorefill attaches to the current Cif Power & Shine bottles. Through its technology, it seamlessly releases the super-concentrated product into the bottle, which is filled with water at home. The ecorefills are 100 per cent recyclable once the plastic sleeves are removed and, by the end of 2020, the ambition is for all Cif ecorefills and spray bottles to be made from 100 per cent recycled plastic. Going smaller is certainly better – the ecorefills are lightweight and save on storage space. Diluting the product at home means 97 per cent less water is being transported,
fewer trucks on the road and less greenhouse gas emissions.

Every day, more companies are announcing refillable packaging solutions including cosmetics and beauty, toiletries such as shampoo and soaps, cleaning products and beverages. The journey to sustainable packaging has only just begun and it is exciting to see what innovative designs packaging technologists are working on that address reduce, reuse, refill and recycle.

AIP president explains biodegradable and compostable packaging

Biodegradable and compostable packaging are not interchangeable. Dr Carol Kilcullen-Lawrence, the national president of the Australia Institute of Packaging (AIP) explains why.

Compostable and biodegradable – two terms that are often used interchangeably, but in reality actually mean very different things.

In light of the recent Australian Environment Ministers announcement that 100 per cent of packaging in Australia will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 we need to better understand how we can really achieve this and how different this target is compared to the packaging waste streams that are in place today.

The first step is to understand the difference between compostable and biodegradable packaging.

READ: AIP will run food waste and packaging seminars at FoodTech PackTech

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.

Biodegradable packaging is either completely or partially derived from a renewable source – like paper or starch – or, if it is petroleum based, is specifically engineered with the aid of additives, to decompose in the natural environment. Such additives change the chemical composition of the plastic.

While this does not affect its manufacturing, use or shelf life, such that it differs functionally from other plastics, it 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.

Compostable packaging has an organic origin, like sugar cane, bamboo or paper, and can broadly be classified into two types:

1. one that which will compost in a home compost; and

2. one that requires an industrial compost facility.

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. And what people and organisations need to realise is that there is a different set of standards for materials suitable for home composting, which is governed by Vincotte a Belgium-based certification organisation.

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 compostable packaging can be disposed of within existing green waste collection services.

Known as FOGO, participating councils are considering potentially reducing landfill collections to fortnightly, allowing FOGO collections to become weekly. However, most councils also know that there will need to be significant consumer education to ensure the right types of compostable and biodegradable packaging are disposed of in such services.

One of the ideal situations to utilise compostable and biodegradable packaging is at public events where the inputs to the waste stream can be controlled by those at the arenas.

In such situations if all food packaging is manufactured from compostable organic sources and biodegradable plastics, then disposal facilities that capture this with the food waste will allow the packaging to be industrially composted together.

This is an ideal solution as many types of biodegradable and compostable packaging cannot be recycled, hence cannot be placed in kerbside recycling. It would be impossible for a consumer to identify the difference between a biodegradable PLA plastic container with a visually identical petroleum-based polymer one.

The move to biodegradable or compostable packaging is real, and with a 2025 target, now is the time to identify not only the most suitable sustainable solutions to suit each product, but to also ensure that the packaging waste streams have the capabilities to manage this change.   

Biodegradable film leads to big yield gains

Commercial trials of a degradable agricultural film that reduces water use and significantly increase yields in underway across 10 US states.

Developed initially for the cotton industry in Australia, OneCrop is also being used in the corn, soybean and industrial hemp industries.

Comprised of low-density polymers, non-genetically modified starch and oxo-degradable compounds, the film is laid over the top of the seedbed as it is sown using the patent pending Norseman Techni-Plant FL – the world’s first High Speed Precision Planter with integrated Film Layer.

The fully biodegradable film is designed to degrade after 90 days and be broken down completely by the time crops are harvested.

The film has slits at 3-inch intervals (7.62cm) directly above the seed location and is held in place by a layer of soil on each side of the row.

Based in Adelaide, South Australia, the company was founded in 2014 by former Irishman David McGrath and Chris Thomas.

McGrath began talks with the CSIRO – the Australian Government agency responsible for scientific research – about developing film technology to improve the efficiency of the cotton industry in 2012.

“I soon realised that cotton really took advantage of the microclimate, germinated and locked in moisture, which is incredibly sensitive here in Australia,” he said.

“Once we had proven the concept it was pretty clear that what we were developing could represent a step-change in a $3 billion market here in Australia.

“Really what we’re doing is putting a little greenhouse directly on top of the seedbed.”

Cotton trials in Australia and the United States last year resulted in yield increases of 50 per cent in Queensland and 47 per cent on the Texas Panhandle.

McGrath said OneCrop also reduced water usage by up to 2 megalitres per hectare, increased daytime soil temperatures by 7C and reduced the amount of seed required because of higher germination rates.

He said the cost of the system was offset by the savings in water and the increases in yield “by a considerable margin”.

“What we’re doing is tricking that seed into thinking it is already in a much warmer time of the year and that is where a lot of the benefit of the crop is being realised,” McGrath said.

“Moisture is a massive part of the story. First of all it forms condensation underneath the film so it’s like it’s permanently raining on top of the seedbed.”

Cotton is currently fetching about USD$450 (A$570) for a 500lb (227kg) bale, or US 88 cents per pound.

“If you can improve yield by 50 per cent and you’re able to go from 10 bales to 15 bales per hectare and you’ve got 1,000 hectares then that is a significant increase in revenue,” McGrath said.

OneCrop has a partnership with fellow Australian company Norseman Machinery to incorporate its film into a specially designed planter.

Two of the machines have been shipped to the United States to be used on commercial crops including cotton, industrial hemp, seed corn, sweet corn, soy beans and mung beans across 10 states including Texas, Louisiana, Illinois, Kentucky and California.

The first 2018 rollout took place in January at a sweet corn farm in California with the bulk of the cotton planting done in April.

“We wanted to have a number of seasons just where we knew that we could operate without any issues and the best way was for us to do it ourselves but now we are at the point where we have had actual growers in the driver’s seat and they’ve been operating our machinery in a kind of try before you buy scenario,” McGrath said.

“Now the machinery and the system from end to end is commercially available for anybody who wants to buy machinery or film for contract or for their own properties – it’s ready.”

One Crop will also have at least three machines being used by commercial cotton growers in Australia when their planting season begins in August.

“We know who our customers are in Australia and within the next two years we’ll be able to identify exactly who are our potential growers.

“The numbers we haven’t been able to tie down is the size of the opportunity in the United States – we’re in 10 states this year so if we ended up having 10 machines sold into every one of those states in the upcoming season then that might be interesting.”

OneCrop is also conducting trials in China and has received inquiries from corn producers in Russia and the cotton industry in Uzbekistan.

McGrath said the technology had the ability to open up more areas for cotton production that were previously too cold or did not have enough available water.

“We’re starting to get genuine interest out of the far flung corners of the world – it seems to be a global opportunity,” he said.

The company was last week awarded the USD$100,000 Future Food Asia Award for its technology.

It will also launch a fundraising campaign in a bid to raise a further A$2.5 million (USD$1.8 million) to build its production facility, and help fast-track the commercial rollout.

“Every cent we have ever had has simply been reinvested back into the business.

“The opportunity out there is phenomenal so that money will help us grow that opportunity.”

This article originally appeared in The Lead. For the original article, click here.