What food packaging is biodegradable?

There are many types of packaging which are marketed as ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘environmentally-friendly’, whether they claim to be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable. And while many people now know to look out for various recycling symbols on packaging, and separating our cardboards from our plastics is daily routine, it’s somewhat less common to be familiar with biodegradable products.

But for companies looking to reduce their impact on the environment and cut down on harmful single-use plastics, biodegradable food packaging is a simple and cost-effective solution, helping businesses reach their sustainability targets, without compromising on quality.

Even better, packaging is often over-used on products, making it a great starting point for reducing your company’s carbon and environmental footprint, providing a ‘quick-win’ solution before looking into more marginal gains.

And, if all that isn’t winning you over already, biodegradable food packaging is becoming more readily available as new processes and materials are developed, meaning there are now a whole host of fantastic biodegradable products to choose from, depending on your company’s requirements.

So, what food packaging is biodegradable?

In a word, loads!

Biodegradable materials, which are increasingly used to manufacture food packaging, are those which can be naturally broken down by microorganisms into organic matter, such as oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. Essentially, they return to nature and can even give back valuable resources as an extra bonus. Win-win!

Depending on the material itself and the environmental conditions, the length of time taken to break down can vary greatly, from a few weeks to multiple decades. You can read more about what biodegradable packaging actually is, here [link to other blog I’m writing on ‘what is biodegradable packaging’].

Until fairly recently, food was predominantly packaged in oil-based plastics, made from petroleum. That plastic box containing the iced doughnuts you picked up for the office? That plastic pot you filled with a healthy salad for lunch? Those plastic containers your Chinese takeaway was delivered in? Not so long ago, these all would have been made from these oil-based plastics. In fact, according to a World Wildlife Fund report, even in 2014, the UK was producing 4.9 million tonnes of plastic waste, of which two-thirds was packaging.

But nowadays, many types of food packaging can be produced using biodegradable materials, including takeaway containers such as burger boxes, chip boxes and noodle pots, food bags, coffee cups, produce trays, cutlery and sauce pots. Handily, this makes biodegradable packaging ideal for everything from salads to bakery items, sandwiches, soups and hot takeaways, plus plenty more besides.

As an example, polylactic acid (PLA), a type of bioplastic made with plant feedstocks as opposed to oil, is a popular biodegradable material frequently used in parts of food packaging, like the windows on salad or sandwich boxes, as well as the sauce pots and lids available through Simply Eco Packaging.

Historically, PLA has been a relatively expensive alternative, however through increased demand and advancements in the manufacturing process, it’s now become a very competitive solution in terms of cost.

The wide range and competitive pricing of biodegradable food packaging available means a huge variety of food outlets and manufacturers can benefit, from big chain restaurants to independent retailers. And when you consider the amount of packaging chucked away at a single event such as a festival or sports match, this can quickly mount up to create huge benefits for the environment.

There’s even a supermarket in Amsterdam – Ekoplaza – which is completely plastic-free, selling all food products in 100% biodegradable packaging, after just 12 weeks on the compost heap. This includes all goods – meat, dairy, vegetables, cereals and everything else stocked on their shelves, which would ordinarily be sold in damaging single-use plastic.

Despite all these developments in recent years, biodegradable food packaging is still – relatively speaking – believed to be in its infancy, with further research and enhancements to come, making sustainable packaging more efficient, cost-effective and better for shelf-life and freshness of products.

And with consumer demand for eco-friendly solutions constantly growing, biodegradable food packaging is only likely to become more prominent on our shelves and in our food outlets.

Why is biodegradable food packaging better for the environment?

While recycling is obviously a lot better for the environment than sending waste to landfill, there’s still a limit on the number of times certain products can be recycled and used for something new. Recycling also uses energy, as well as water, which can be damaging to the environment, not to mention the energy needing to actually transport the materials.

Where food packaging is concerned, especially things like the cardboard used for takeaway foods, the scraps of melted cheese, sauce and greasy residue left behind often render the materials useless for recycling.

Biodegradable materials, meanwhile, are broken down naturally over time by microorganisms, including bacteria. As mentioned above, while the time taken to decompose varies depending on the material and the conditions to which it is exposed, things such as biodegradable plastics – which consist of some but not all bioplastics – break down considerably quicker than typical plastics, therefore making them a lot less damaging to the environment.

How can my company benefit from biodegradable food packaging?

Companies ranging from huge multi-nationals, such as McDonald’s, to new start-ups are beginning to convert to biodegradable food packaging. In the USA, No Evil Foods now use a biodegradable unbleached carton to wrap their vegetarian meat alternatives, while Numi Organic Teas have even gone as far as to develop tea bags made from biodegradable non-GMO filter-paper, instead of traditional nylon bags. South Florida-based Saltwater Brewery now use six-pack rings on their beer cans which are not only biodegradable, but edible too.

This just goes to show how innovative thinking and modern technology can support a plethora of biodegradable, eco-friendly solutions for food packaging.

Browse Simply Eco Packaging’s product range to see how we can support your businesses’ sustainability targets.

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