Innovate Blog
Are Biodegradable Products Good for the Environment?

Thursday February 9, 2017

Ask the Expert: Jo Gilroy (Head of Sustainability).

We asked our Sustainability expert ‘Is biodegradable food packaging is a sustainable solution?’

And here’s what she told us…

JoWhen talking to customers about their food packaging products, generally they come to the table very enthusiastic about biodegradable options. The biodegradability of a product is considered a benchmark with which to judge its merit for the environment. Biodegradable is sustainable, that’s fact right?  However, the truth is not as straight forward as people tend to assume.

So what does the term ‘biodegradable’ even mean?  Simply put the term refers to natural materials, animal and plant based materials such as wood and paper, which can be completely broken down into carbon dioxide, water and other natural elements by micro-organisms found in the soil.

When witnessed in nature, biodegradable materials are an integral part of the circle of life.  Fallen leaves, rotting trees and deceased animals all biodegrade and in so doing, feed micro-organisms in the soil which in turn keep our natural environments healthy.  But can the same be said for biodegradable foodservice packaging?

On their own, biodegradable products are not really a sustainable solution for packaging.  There are a number of reasons for this.  There is a feeling amongst consumers that when using biodegradable products, the disposal aspect does not matter as much because after all, the product will biodegrade.  However, this process can take years, even decades and in the meantime, we have still operated in a very linear way.  We have consumed resources to take, make and dispose of a product without receiving much in return to reinvest back into the environment as a sustainable approach.

Though it is true that many biodegradable products are produced from renewable resources, it does not necessarily follow that these resources are managed sustainably.  It is also important to remember that unlike biodegradable materials found in nature, the manufacture process for many foodservice products can undermine the actual biodegradability of the material.  2016 brought about the revelation that paper cups are in fact lined with a plastic material to make the product waterproof.  Though most of the product is paper and therefore technically biodegradable, the plastic lining significantly hinders this process.

Another key challenge is that the term ‘biodegradable’ is often confused with the term ‘compostable’.  It is easy to understand why as the two terms are linked.  All compostable products are inherently biodegradable, as they too can breakdown into a natural compound.  However, not all biodegradable products are also compostable.

Composting occurs under specific man-made conditions and over a much quicker period, often just a few weeks, to produce a nutrient rich ‘humus’ or compost.  This compost is free from toxins and metal residue, which can be left behind by slowly biodegrading materials.

However, it is in the difference and similarity between these two terms that the potential environmental benefit of biodegradable products can be realised.  If considering biodegradable foodservice packaging make sure to use products listed as also being compostable, such as our exclusive range Sustain.  Remember that all compostable products are also biodegradable, but are able to produce a beneficial compost at their end of life which can be fed back into the environment for the production of more compostable packaging.  If treated the right way, food service packaging which is both biodegradable & compostable can create a sustaining production loop.