The Environmental Impact of Food Packaging: Analysing Eco, Compostable, and Biodegradable Materials

  • 18 April 2023
  • Environment, Technology
  • Lucy Jones

Consumers increasingly demand sustainable packaging. A report published at the beginning of this year revealed that the percentage of customers demanding sustainable packaging has risen to 81%, sending a very clear message to businesses that sustainable options are the way forward. Food packaging is a significant contributor to the world’s growing waste problem, which is why many businesses are exploring environmentally-friendly options such as stand up pouches made from a range of eco, compostable and biodegradable materials. But what differentiates these three sustainable options? In this article, we explore the differences between eco, compostable and biodegradable materials.

Eco Materials

Eco materials are designed to minimise their environmental impact throughout the entire product lifecycle. Eco materials are made in a way that conserves energy and water, reduces pollution, and generally promotes sustainable practices. For example, stand up pouches are commonly made from recycled materials and have become popular thanks to their low carbon footprint, reduced material usage and easier recycling.

Compostable Materials

Compostable materials can be decomposed by various microorganisms, such as bacteria, into organic matter. This packaging type is commonly made from plant-based materials, such as bagasse or cornstarch, or from recyclable materials, like cardboard or paper. Compostable materials play an important role in reducing waste and protecting the environment. When compostable packaging is put into a compost bin, it breaks down into organic matter, which can be used to fertilise plants. Doing this helps to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.

In the UK alone, 14 million tonnes of waste is sent to landfills. Consumers are supportive of compostable materials. One study found that 89 per cent of people want the UK government to support compostables as a solution to the growing plastic crisis.

Compostable materials have various benefits that make them an ideal packaging option:

Eco-friendly: Compostable packaging helps to reduce waste and limit damage to the environment.

Cost-effective: In many cases, compostable packaging is made from materials that are usually more affordable than traditional packaging materials.

Various uses: Compostable packaging can be used for a wide selection of products, including but not limited to food, drinks and household items.

Safety: Compostable packaging is made from safe materials, meaning it can be used to package products designed for both humans and animals.

Biodegradable Materials

Biodegradable materials are another popular environmentally-friendly packaging option. Biodegradable materials are an ideal sustainable packaging solution because they break down via biological processes, such as exposure to sunlight, air and water, and through bacterial digestion. However, unlike compostable materials, biodegradable materials do not need specific conditions to break down.

However, the rate at which they decompose varies depending on the environmental conditions and the composition of the specific material. There are various types of biodegradable packaging available, including hemp, paper, PLA, cellulose and seaweed.

However, all of these packaging types have their benefits and drawbacks.

Biodegradable materials have various benefits over traditional packaging materials:

Reduces waste: Using biodegradable packaging on a large scale significantly reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.

Better for sustainability: Biodegradable packaging is a sustainable option because it is made from renewable materials, allowing it to be produced without causing harm to the environment.

Cost-effective: Biodegradable packaging can also be a cost-effective option, depending on the material you choose.

Why You Need To Know The Difference

So, why is it important to know the difference between eco, compostable and biodegradable packaging? There are several reasons you need to consider before selecting a packaging type:

Impact on the environment: Each material has a different impact on the environment based on its production process, resource usage and its end-of-life disposal process. Understanding these vital differences will allow you to make better decisions that allow you to meet specific sustainability and carbon footprint goals.

Disposal processes: Sustainable packaging requires different disposal processes depending on whether you deal with compostable or biodegradable materials. Improper disposal may mean the material does not break down as it should, which may reduce the environmental benefits of the practice.

Compliance: There are regulations you must follow regarding eco, biodegradable and compostable materials. Understanding these regulatory differences will allow you to stay compliant, avoiding reputational damage and costly fines.

Packaging quality: The materials have properties that may affect performance, such as resistance to moisture and durability. Understanding these key differences will allow you to make an informed decision on which material type is best for the products packaged inside.

In Summary

Understanding the impact packaging has on the environment and the difference between the sustainable materials available is vital in today’s eco-conscious world. Consumers, businesses and policymakers all have roles to play in promoting the adoption of these materials for products such as food packaging. By choosing sustainable packaging over traditional plastics that harm the environment, businesses demonstrate their commitment to sustainable solutions that reduce the negative impact of plastic waste.