Plastics have reigned the world of food service and packaging. However, the growing heaps of plastic waste are indicators of a much-needed change. The landfills and oceans are choked and the need for alternative greener solutions is evident.
A new era of biodegradable packaging, utensils, and kitchenware is here. The era of bioplastics.
A bioplastic is simply a plastic-like substance which is made using biological sources like sugarcane, corn, potato starch, etc. With strength and durability similar to plastics, these organic versions are designed to biodegrade naturally at the end of their useful life cycle.
Types of Bioplastics
While bioplastics can be sourced out of various organic materials, they belong to three main groups:
- Bio-based: These include bio-based polyethylene (PE), bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and bio-based polyurethanes
- Biobased and biodegradable plastics: These include polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) and polybutylene succinate (PBS).
- Petrochemical based biodegradable plastics: These include PBAT and PCL.
Sources of Bioplastics
As we know, conventional plastics are derived from petroleum products. Bioplastics, however, are made out of degradable sources like starch and lipids. This makes them more environment-friendly as well as sustainable for large scale consumption.
Some commonly used bioplastic raw materials include sugar, corn starch, starch from other sources, fats and oils, soy, proteins, cellulose, and biowaste.
Most of these material sources are more readily available than their petroleum counterparts. Additionally, they are cheap and have a lower carbon footprint. Further, their strength and durability qualities are similar to traditional plastics. This makes them a suitable product for use in multiple food packaging applications like bioplastic straws, bioplastic bottles, crockery, cutlery, hot cups/cold cups (biodegradable), etc.
Characteristics of Bioplastics
To understand the characteristics of bioplastics that make them a hot trend in the modern world, it is important to understand them in comparison with plastics.
Plastics vs bioplastics
Petroleum based plastics are the maximum utilized petroleum derivatives around the globe. Since they are petrochemical products, it also means that they are based out of nonrenewable sources of energy. Additionally, their non-biodegradable nature is a serious concern for the planet.
Bioplastics, on the other hand, are based out of organic sources/natural materials. This makes them completely biodegradable and hence environment friendly. Most bioplastics decompose and reduce to water, CO2 and organic matter which are readily absorbed by the environment.
Coming to the food and packaging industry, bioplastics have a distinctive advantage over plastics in terms of functionality. A fair number of plastics used to manufacture food containers are made up of bBisphenol A (BPA). under unsuitable conditions, these chemicals often lean from the plastics, thereby contaminating the food products inside.
Bioplastics, however, are organic and contain no such harsh chemicals which ensure complete food quality.
Additionally, bioplastics have been considered a notch better in performance when it comes to packing fluids and other moisture containing food items. They have a high shelf life and are highly suitable for rigid packaging needs. And that’s not all. Biobased packaging with their glossy appearance are definitely more visually appealing.
Lets just quickly sum it up.
Following are the key advantages of bioplastics in food industry:
- Greener, sustainable product
- High strength, durability and visual appeal
- Provide better food safety
- Biodegradable/compostable, hence better managed end of life options
- Can also be recycled like conventional plastics
- Consumer acceptance
- Can be engineered to biodegrade after a certain period of time
- Lowers the overall carbon footprint
Key properties of bioplastics
Bioplastics, the wonderful alternative to plastics are very similar to conventional counterparts in terms of characteristics. However, the following physical, chemical, and mechanical properties make them different from plastics:
- Bioplastics can have different textures ranging from stiff, brittle to rubbery and moldable.
- The properties of bioplastics can be changed by blending in certain polymers.
- Most bioplastics are moisture resistant.
- Bioplastics are water-insoluble, oxygen impermeable and opaque.
- Biodegradable polymers degrade rapidly when exposed to the right light, water, and air conditions.
- Biobased plastics like PE, PET are identical to their conventional counterparts in terms of properties. However, they produce a lower carbon footprint than fossil fuel-based plastics.
- Bio-based plastics can be mechanically recycled.
- Modern bioplastics like PLA, PHA are completely biodegradable and compostable.
- New innovations in biobased polymers offer multiple properties like flexibility, printability, transparency, durability and heat resistance.
The growth of bioplastics in the food packaging industry, 2019
Bioplastics are one of the hottest trends in the food packaging industries.
So what does it actually bring to the table?
Environmental sustainability along with functionality
More and more manufacturers dealing in the party and catering ware are now getting interested in bioplastic based products. Compostable product lines like biodegradable cutlery, crockery, storage utensils, serving bowls, etc are now available in stylish designs and fashionable looks.
Food professionals willing to consider sustainable eco-friendly solutions do not have to give up on fashion and trends. Catering to environmental concerns while still competing with the ever-stylish world of food packaging is now possible.
Going green does not necessarily mean compromising on fashion. On the other hand, food professionals can stay on top of the market by showcasing their long term plans for sustainable development.
The support from policymakers
Biodegradable and bioplastics are definitely the better option for the environment and ecology. Additionally, they are also more readily accepted by modern-day consumers.
But that’s not all.
Government’s and policymakers across the globe are backing bioplastics too. The materials, being derived from renewable resources and being completely biodegradable in nature show a significant promise for a greener future.
Various countries (and states) have brought in new laws that have put a ban on products like consumer plastic bags. Additionally, complete replacement with bioplastics has become the new law in various parts of the world.
Understanding the serious environmental concerns with plastic waste accumulation, various countries have put forth stringent taxes on its usage.
Latest industry news
Positive changes have been happening recently in the world of bioplastics.
Starbucks president and CEO Kevin Johnson recently announced its plan to phase out plastic straws completely by the end of 2020. The shift towards sustainability has been a significant milestone for the food and beverage industry.
With the rising demand for green products, more sources are being tried and tested to generate better quality bioplastics. A recent research suggests the development of seaweed-based bioplastics which bring with them higher durability and heat resistance.
Similarly, there have been developments on algae-based bioplastics by companies like Petro Sun, Dow Chemicals, Cereplast, etc.
Various other well-known brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Heinz, etc use bio-PET bottles for beverages and other food items.
Players in the cosmetic field have embraced bioplastics too. Leading companies like Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson use bio-based PE packaging for creams and lotions.
More research on aspects like antimicrobial coating on bioplastics will enhance the food preservation practices in the coming times.
For professionals within the food and beverage industry, the time to get tagged as a “green unit” is finally here. Investing in biodegradable catering items like disposable dinnerware, compostable utensils, cutlery, biodegradable straws, trays, etc is crucial.
The year 2019 calls food professionals to do their part for the environment while still catering to their customers efficiently. Additionally, biodegradable logos are a great way to enhance the promotion of your products. The green logos are a great way to build customer credibility, public approval and gain recognition within the industry.
The recognition of bioplastic packaging products is on the rise. Time is ripe for professionals within the sector to take a leap towards sustainable development and green future. It is safe to say that bioplastics are the future of food packaging and are here to stay!