When someone asks for plastic-free, just what do they mean?

When someone asks for plastic-free, just what do they mean?

Plastics are one of the most versatile materials on the planet. In recent years, they have also become one of the most controversial. They are a staple of the packaging world – and have been used for many years, because of the many and undoubted benefits they offer.

At the last count more than 18 trillion pounds of plastic had been produced – making it one of the most abundant man-made materials in existence.

And it goes without saying that when David Attenborough’s Blue Planet programme changed the goalposts overnight, and changed many people’s attitudes to plastic, it presented the packaging world with a problem – if people don’t want plastic, they need something else, and that something may not offer the same shelf-life benefits or the same level of protection.

One of the main issues here is a basic understanding of what is plastic, and whether people who say they want plastic-free actually understand what it is they are asking for…

What your average consumer on the street understands as plastic has been derived from fossil fuels. It comes from a non-renewable source, namely petroleum – around eight per cent of the world’s oil supply is used in manufacturing plastics. Some fossil-fuel based plastics can be recycled, but many can’t – and what they all share is that they will take a long-time to disappear.

With only 9% of plastic being recycled, the rest is burnt or left accumulating in landfill sites or – as become apparent in Blue Planet – floating at sea. Understandably, people were alarmed. Plastic made from fossil-fuels can take more than a thousand years to decompose.

Bioplastics have been developed to reduce some of the negative environmental impacts of regular plastics while maintaining their amazing properties as a material.

Instead of being produced from petroleum, bioplastics are made with plant or other biological materials. Most commonly, this process is done by extracting sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane to convert into polylactic acids (PLAs). Bioplastics can also be produced from polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) that have been engineered from micro-organisms.

So bioplastics come from a sustainable source – instead of being made from fossil fuels they are often made from plants – but crucially, it is important to note they are still plastics. Which then opens up the question can you describe a bioplastic as being plastic-free?

Bioplastics account for nearly 300,000 metric tons of the plastics market. With fossil fuel-based plastic production stands and 181 million metric tons every year – however, the bioplastics market share is growing – by with production growing by an estimated 25% every year.

Made from renewable sources, such as corn, and biodegradable, once these bioplastics have been used, they can be organically recycled and create valuable biomass used to grow new plants. The cycle comes full circle much faster than regular plastics.

But do they offer the very high strength, durability and flexibility that make fossil-fuel-based plastics the long-accepted go-to material for many different applications? No, the bioplastics out there simply cannot compete with its physical performance.

There are ethical questions also… when parts of the world are struggling to feed the population, is using corn to produce bioplastic instead of food an acceptable use of resources?

Most bioplastics require industrial composting to degrade. Microbes can’t break these materials down without intense heat applied. If they are not dealt with and processed correctly, they still end up in landfill or floating in the sea – so are just as much as a problem as fossil-fuel-based plastic.

Even small amounts of bioplastics in the regular plastics recycling stream can contaminate it and render the whole batch useless. Without clear and coherent messaging on packaging, consumers will continue to throw all plastic in their recycling bin without knowing what it is, whether or not it can be recycled, and whether indeed it should be in their recycling.

Not all bioplastics need industrial composting though. Sirane, for example, sells a breathable film for extending the shelf-life of fresh produce. It’s made from corn starch. Technically speaking it’s a bioplastic, but in this case it’s home compostable.

Which brings us back to the question, when the average person on the street says they want their packaging plastic-free, are they talking about fossil-fuel-based plastics, bioplastics or both?

Would they consider our breathable film to be plastic-free?

The term bio can definitely be misleading, as it suggests that it is definitely environmentally-friendly. Bioplastics should not be automatically assumed to mean the product will compost or even biodegrade. In other words, 100 per cent bioplastics may be non-biodegradable and non- compostable, and 100 per cent fossil-based plastics can be biodegradable and even compostable.

We’ve seen inquiries come into Sirane for plastic pouches and films where it specifically asked for ‘non fossil-fuel-based plastics’ which for a food packaging pouch is an interesting request based on the performance of bioplastics and the questions over how it is disposed of.

Sirane, as an example, has a range of pouches and films called RePEat. These are made from LDPE and even if multi-layer (for different barrier properties). They can be recycled.

So although they are not plastic-free, they fall into a category of what people call ‘good plastics’. There are plenty out there who will argue such a thing does not exist… that’s for another day.


Author Details

Mark Lingard

Mark Lingard

Mark Lingard is the Sirane Group marketing manager, with responsibility across all areas of the business including food packaging, medical, horticultural products, co-packing, and sustainable packaging.

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