Alternative packaging materials are based on sustainable (renewable) or secondary raw materials, are low in residues, edible and easier to compost. They can serve for situations where a complete avoidance of packaging, as the primary goal, is not possible. They are not only an alternative to packaging made of plastics based on fossil fuels and natural gas, but also to packaging made of environmentally harmful 'bio-based and biodegradable plastics' (also called 'bio-plastics').
Food production is one of the areas with the highest plastics consumption. Plastics are the most popular packaging material for food because of their resistance to biodegradation processes. In addition to the much-discussed accumulation of plastics in the oceans, also inland waters, the drinking water, the air and the soil as the basis of agricultural production are contaminated with plastics. The general aim is to avoid this packaging material consumption as far as possible. If packaging is needed, more sustainable alternatives should replace environmentally harmful plastics.
The so-called 'bio-based and biodegradable plastics' release less climate-damaging CO₂ than plastics based on mineral oil, but in the overall picture they are not necessarily more environmentally friendly. Depending on the material, fossil fuels can indeed be reduced, but out of the 0.6% share of bioplastics in the total global plastics production capacity, only 36.3% are partially biodegradable and 63.7% are bio-based (meaning non-biodegradable). The bio-based plastics mostly consist out of industrially grown starch- and cellulose-rich crops such as corn and sugar cane, some of which are genetically modified and whose cultivation is causing serious environmental damage. This can be a higher potential for acidification and eutrophication as well as a potentially higher demand for fertilizers, pesticides and fuels for agricultural machinery. The additional land requirements could lead to competition for land with the food production sector, or ecological compensation and forest areas could be reduced.
New promising alternatives to environmentally harmful bio-based plastics for inevitable packaging requirements are, inter alia, plastics made of paper, straw, fungi, algae and bran. For example, the Finnish company 'Kotkamill' produces entirely recyclable paper packaging that is treated with a special process to make it waterproof. The German start-up 'Landpack' uses straw (and hemp) as a base material for insulating packaging, which can be used like polystyrene. The American company 'Ecovative' also produces a degradable alternative to polystyrene. It consists of fungi and organic waste. The completely compostable material 'Notpla' from the start-up of the same name is primarily based on brown algae, which can be used as transparent and elastic packaging for liquids. In Austria, the company 'NaKu' has developed bottles made out of a material derived from lactic acid as well as sunflower husks as a waste product of oil production. Although tableware should primarily be reusable, there is an interesting approach to avoid waste when needing disposable products: edible tableware. The Polish company 'Biotrem' processes bran as a waste product of wheat production into a material that serves as the basis for edible tableware and cutlery.
The above-mentioned change in awareness to reduce or avoid the use of plastics has especially in recent years been given particular importance in the media. It is also increasingly manifesting itself in political actions. An EU directive of 2015 promotes the gradual reduction of plastic bags, which has been until now through the agreed cost obligation of plastic bags successfully implemented in Germany. Another example is France, which bans plastic tableware and cutlery from 2020 on. The EU issued a similar ban on plastic cutlery, plates and straws earlier this year. All over the world, 'zero waste' movements such as the global movement 'break free from plastic' are currently forming, working towards the avoidance of plastic in everyday life, developing solutions and strengthening the public presence of the agenda. In response to the problems, many young companies are working towards developing edible or fully compostable packaging materials that provide a more sustainable alternative for unavoidable packaging needs.
As described above, bio-plastics cannot keep the promise of being more sustainable than plastics based on fossil fuels. For many reasons, it is more likely a shift in unsustainable environmental impacts than a solution. The overall best solution is still to completely avoid or reduce the use of environmentally harmful packaging materials along the value chain from production to consumption.
The alternative packaging materials presented here serve only as substitutes for more environmentally harmful materials when packaging is required. Although they are comparatively (faster) renewable (e.g. brown algae), more rapidly degradable (e.g. straw, algae, bran), or are generated as waste products during production (e.g. sunflower husks, bran), they are not all unlimited and available at all times. In some cases, the cultivation can also be in conflict with food or animal feed production.
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