Biobased packaging materials are made from renewable raw materials that have a direct or indirect natural origin. Examples include paper made from wood fibres and various types of plastic such as bio-PE, which is made from sugar cane. The term “Biobased” therefore covers various materials. The term “renewable” is often used as a synonym for biobased materials. Raw materials are called renewable when they are gained from sources that are replenished in a natural manner on a human time scale (within an average human lifetime), e.g. agricultural crops and trees.
Biodegradability is a different property of packaging materials. It is not the same as biobased. Biobased refers to the origin of the material. Biodegradable refers to the possible waste phase of the material. Some biobased materials can be biodegradable. In the figure, various types of plastic are divided according to their (non-) biobased and compostable properties.
Considerations when using biobased packaging materials
- Biobased materials can be used as alternatives for materials made from fossil raw materials;
- Some biobased materials can be recycled in the existing waste processing systems of certain countries.
- Some materials have unique properties that make them suitable for use as a packaging material.
- There are no countries whose regular waste phase is set up to handle the majority of the relatively new biobased packaging materials.
- Biobased materials can lead to confusion among consumers with regard to the correct disposal method and the perception of sustainability;
- Biobased materials are generally more expensive that conventional packaging materials.
Biobased materials can be many different types of materials. For example, paper and cardboard are biobased because they are largely made from wood. However, there are also plastics made from biobased raw materials, such as PLA and bio-PE made from corn, sugar cane or sugar beets. Furthermore, banana leaves and bamboo can be used as raw materials for the production of packaging materials.
List of biobased materials
- PLA (PolyLacticAcid)
- Bio-PET (max 30% biobased)
- Starch based
- PEF (not yet commercially available)
- Natural rubber
- Banana leaves
- Coconut fibres
- Elephant grass
- Residual streams from the agri- and horticultural sectors (tomato stems)
Biobased packaging materials are becoming increasingly popular as alternatives to conventional materials. They may possess different properties than conventional packaging materials. Whether or not a biobased packaging material is a better alternative depends on the product being packaged.
For example, the biobased plastic PLA (PolyLacticAcid) has a lower melting temperature (approximately 60°C) than the commonly used plastic polypropylene (approximately 160°C), while PEF (Polyethylene Furanoate) has a higher gas barrier than PET. Because of its lower melting temperature, PLA is not suitable for the warm filling of products (e.g. ketchup), but with its low oxygen barrier, it is a suitable material with which to package respiring products such as vegetables and fruit. With its higher barriers, PEF can extend the shelf life of food products, thereby reducing the risk of product loss.
However, there are also biobased plastics that possess the same functional properties as conventional materials. For example, bio-PE and bio-PET can be used for the same purposes as PE and PET (which are made from oil) because they are molecularly identical, despite being made from different raw materials. These biobased plastics are known as “drop-ins.”
Natural fibres (paper, cardboard and wood)
Wood was one of the first biobased packaging materials to be used. These days, wood is mostly used for pallets and crates in the logistical sector. Paper and cardboard are biobased materials because they are made from wood fibres. Normally, paper and cardboard are produced from the coniferous or deciduous wood fibres of the Norway spruce (spruce wood), Scots pine (pine wood), birch, poplar, beech and eucalyptus. Additionally, the use of alternative biobased resources is now being explored. Examples include the fast-growing elephant grass or waste from the agricultural sector such as tomato stems. The challenge lies in the fact that these fibres have different lengths and shapes, which sometimes makes it impossible to combine them with regular paper fibres.
Other biobased packaging materials include bamboo, banana leaves and coconut fibres. Bamboo can be used for the production of crates. Banana leaves can be combined with a binding agent to shape them into trays. When combined with certain additives, coconut fibres can be used to produce pallets. Furthermore, a growing number of residual streams from the agri- and horticultural sectors are used for the production of paper, cardboard and other packaging materials.
Points of discussion
Food vs. packaging material
The production of biobased packaging materials requires biobased resources. These, in turn, require farmland, water, fertilisers, etcetera. There is an ongoing discussion concerning the competitive role that the production of these biobased resources can have on the environment and food production. Furthermore, the question remains whether the production of biobased resources is truly more sustainable than using raw materials such as oil.
Perceived sustainability and greenwashing
In some cases, biobased materials are used where they offer no added value and may actually have a higher environmental impact. One example is using a biobased plastic in the packaging for a product that requires a high oxygen barrier. By using a biobased material such as PLA, the risk of product loss increases because the product is not as well protected.
Another example is replacing an easily recyclable plastic packaging material with a biobased material to which barrier materials are added in order to retain similar functionality. As a result, more packaging material is used per product and the recyclability of the material deteriorates. Although the packaging may appear to be more sustainable in the eyes of consumers because it is biobased, that is not necessarily true. An LCA can be conducted to learn more about the actual environmental impact.
In addition to being made from biological resources, some biobased materials also offer a biological waste processing option: they are biodegradable. Biodegradable materials are materials that can be broken down by microorganisms (bacteria or fungi) into water and natural gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4).
Recyclable biobased plastics
Some plastics that contain biobased raw materials can technically be recycled. Examples include PLA (chemically), bio-PE and bio-PET (mechanically). Whether that actually happens in practice depends on the available collection, sorting and recycling facilities in a country and/or region.
Recyclable biobased paper and cardboard
The fibres used to make paper and cardboard can come from wood and from relatively new biobased raw materials, including elephant grass (miscanthus) and agricultural waste. These alternative raw materials for fibres can be recycled together with conventional fibres.
Situation in various countries
Waste processing: Even when packaging materials meet the European standard for compostable packaging materials (EN13432), they cannot be disposed of as organic waste. Read more about this in the fact sheet on compostable materials. Bio-PE and bio-PET can be disposed of as plastic packaging waste after use, so they can be recycled.
United Kingdom (UK)
In the United Kingdom, more and more businesses strive to use as little plastic as possible in their packaging materials. Furthermore, biodegradable plastics are classified as being “Plastic Free,” even though they are also polymers at a chemical level. (Source: Foodnavigator)
Packaging materials and process
When developing sustainable packaging materials, choosing the right material and packaging process is an important step. When choosing a material, you are basically also choosing a packaging process. This combination determines which packaging types you can produce.
Here is an example: suppose you want to package soup. You not only have to choose a material, for example glass, plastic or metal, but also a packaging type, for example a glass bottle, a glass jar, a plastic bag, or a metal can. Each of these options calls for a specific processing process, since filling a glass jar requires entirely different production lines than filling a flexible bag.
The choice for a sustainable packaging solution is therefore not only limited to the sustainability of packaging materials. In addition to the material itself, the packaging process and the logistical process also affect the sustainability. This section therefore contains both information about material selection and raw materials as well as points of attention for the packaging process, packaging systems, and logistics.
Bio-based and biodegradable plastics, Facts and Figures
Paper – published by WUR Food and Biobased Research
Fact Sheet biodegradable packaging materials
Paper – published by Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging
Detergent flasks of biobased and recycled plastic
Best practice – published by Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging