What materials can we use for products and packaging that's biodegradable or infinitely recyclable?
Not all plastic is recyclable and the type of plastic which can be, only recycles 2 - 3 times before it can't be recycled any further. New plastic needs to be added each time plastic is recycled as its quality degrades. So recycling plastic is not the best solution to reduce the growing plastic problem.
Bioplastics are being sold as a solution to the single-use plastic problem such as degradable cling wrap, garbage bags and carry bags. But are they really better for the environment? This is a bit more complex than what the name appears to mean and more understanding is required. We've taken the safe side here to keep it simple.
Infinitely recyclable materials
Aluminium, steel and glass can be infinitely recycled as their quality doesn't degrade. And recycling uses far less energy than creating new material.
The aluminium can is the easiest and most recycled container in the world, with approximately 73% of all aluminium ever produced in the US, still in use today.
Recycling a single aluminium can saves enough energy to power a 100 watt lightbulb for almost 4 hours. Basically, recycling aluminium requires 95% less energy than mining and creating new material.
Steel is the most recycled packaging material in the world with 82.5% recycled in Europe and approximately 70% recycled in the US.
Tin cans are actually steel cans coated with a very thin layer of tin, which prevents the steel from corroding. Archaeological evidence suggests that we've been using tin for at least 5500 years and the technique of canning foods as a means of preservation was invented in 1795.
Glass is made from 100% natural and abundant materials like sand, soda ash and limestone which are melted at very high temperature.
Glass is one of the preferred storage materials for health as it best preserves taste, vitamins and overall properties. This is why it's commonly used in the pharmaceutical industry.
Plastic on the other hand can leach chemicals into stored food. Fatty or oily food should not be stored in plastic as it's fat soluble making it likely to leach into these foods.
Glass bottles have a recycling rate of about 33% in the US compared with 90% in European countries like Germany and Switzerland.
Globally, recycling these materials should be the emphasis to become a social norm for better health and a cleaner planet.
Reducing packaging waste is a very worthwhile goal for sustainability
Paper & Cardboard
Corrugated cardboard is widely used for packaging as it's biodegradable and flexible. It takes up more space and weight than plastic, but without the harmful long-term effect of single-use plastic waste.
Globally, logging for paper and cardboard is now performed in a controlled and renewable way with two international organisations certifying sustainable forests: The Forest Stewardship Council and the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. Their logos help retailers and consumers identify paper made to meet strict environmental guidelines preventing deforestation.
Paper can be recycled 4 - 5 times and recycled paper uses less energy, water and produces lower carbon emissions than making new paper.
Bamboo is sustainable as it's fast growing, requires little water, doesn't need pesticides or herbicides and absorbs a large amount of carbon dioxide. Bamboo produces 35% more oxygen than trees in its equivalent mass and can absorb as much as 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare per year.
Bamboo products are a great sustainable alternative as long as it's grown to environmental standards and from a transparent supply chain that doesn't use toxic chemicals.
Hemp is also a fast growing plant that can be harvested for fibre in as short as 60 days, which helps slow down deforestation. It's naturally resistant to disease and pests and puts nutrients back into the soil. Hemp is a strong and versatile material that can be used to create a large number of different products from clothing to strong but light-weight construction blocks.
A company in the UK - Myco Materials - has harnessed the natural intelligence and flexibility of mycelium, the material structure of fungi. Organic materials such as sawdust, corn or hemp husks, which would normally be thrown away by farmers are collected and used as food for the mushroom mycelium cells. As it feeds from the nutrients of these materials, it grows and binds the organic materials together. It can be grown into any shape, making it an excellent packaging alternative to plastic.
Mycelium is not only home compostable, it's flame and water resistant.
Coconut husk fibres are called coir and are found in between the hard shell and the outer layer of coconuts. Coir has been used to make ropes and cord since ancient times as fibres are typically 10 to 30 centimetres (4 to 12 in) long. It's naturally burn resistant and one of the few fibres that are naturally resistant to damage by salt or seawater.
Companies like Enkev combine coir with a natural binder and press it to make cardboard-like packaging materials, which are durable yet compostable.
Other fiber packaging materials include corn husk, rice husk, wheat straw, sugarcane fibre and bamboo.
Fiber packaging is one of the most sustainable single-use packaging options as they can be made from salvaged materials. Coir, corn husk, wheat husk and sugarcane fibres are all materials that are usually burned or destroyed. These natural resources, which are typically wasted, can now be re-used to create packaging without effecting the food supply chain.
If processed in the right way, they can be made into 100% natural, compostable or completely biodegradable packaging. They also prevent deforestation and reduce space in landfills.
“The rising consumer demand for more eco-friendly products is fuelling the research and development of new packaging options.”
Erik Lambert - CEO of Biovéne Barcelona
More research and development is needed to create natural alternatives to synthetic plastic, that is as conveniently flexible, durable, light-weight and waterproof.
The ZLOW fund is here to support new innovations for plastic free products and sustainable packaging solutions.
Please contact us to see how you can apply.