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How Safe is the Biodegradable Food Packaging Market?

Do you remember when manufacturers heavily publicized microbeads as the main component in cosmetics, toothpaste, etc.? But, shortly after, the government imposed a ban on using microbeads because of the harm they are causing to the sea creatures, bringing the ecosystem on the stake. Are we on the verge of making the same mistake again with biodegradable food packaging? Read the biodegradable food packaging from the sustainability point of view. But, before we discuss the pros and cons, let’s have a look at the types of biodegradable food packaging.

Types of Biodegradable Food Packaging Materials

The motto of biodegradable food packaging is to reduce packaging waste. Therefore substantial research is going on to create edible films which will eliminate packaging waste altogether. Industries use the following polymers for making biodegradable packaging.

  • Polysaccharides extracted from biomass
  • Polysaccharides produced by microorganisms
  • Polymers produced by chemical synthesis of renewable bio-derived monomers (e.g. PLA - polylactic acid)

Researchers are keen on developing edible and/or biodegradable packaging. The biodegradable packaging may or may not contain biopolymers. Also, they may or may not be edible. However, more sustainable are the biopolymers obtained from renewable resources.

Types of biodegradable food packaging polymers
Image Courtesy: ScienceDirect

These biopolymers make biodegradable food packaging bags, microwavable food containers etc. Please note, biodegradable plastics are made from fossil-based resources and they take a longer time to decompose than their biopolymer counterparts.

Is Biodegradable Food Packaging 100% Natural?

When we talk about biodegradable packaging for the food industry, it is not only the waste we worry about. It’s also whether the packaging is food grade, shelf sustainable, and incorporates almost all product isolation properties like plastic. Let’s discuss the edible and non-edible food packaging separately and their making process.

Edible Biodegradable Food Packaging

Polysaccharides are common macromolecules suitable for making edible food packaging. Even if the consumer discards the packaging it is biodegradable. The popular polysaccharides are cellulose, chitin, and pullulan. The good thing about these polymers is- they possess good mechanical strength. These are also capable of isolating the product from oxygen and carbon dioxide. But, these polymers are hydrophilic i.e. they fail to provide a barrier against moisture.

Edible Biodegradable Food Packaging
Image Courtesy: The Culinary Exchange

For example, Pullulan is a polysaccharide from microorganisms and available for commercial use. Hayashibara Corporation and Shandong Jinmei Biotechnology Co. Ltd. are the leading producers of pullulan. Pullulan is non-toxic, odorless, and colorless, which makes it suitable for making edible films. Also, they are homogeneous, transparent, printable, heat sealable, flexible and provides a good barrier to oxygen. But, these are hydrophilic, costly, and don’t match the mechanical properties of plastics. However, researchers are blending pullulan with lipids and proteins to improve their mechanical strength and moisture permeability.

Pullulan - Edible Biodegradable Food Packaging

Non-Edible Biodegradable Packaging

Polylactic acid and cellulose make non-edible biodegradable food packaging. Still, safety is on the stake because many times manufacturers treat cellulose with toxic solutions to recast into sulphuric acid. This forms a hydrophobic layer and improves mechanical strength.

Hence, not all food packaging made from biopolymers are biodegradable. The process of making packaging accounts more for whether it is sustainable.

Is Biodegradable Food Packaging Effective in the Present Market?

Our generation is well accustomed to plastic packaging, and there isn’t a day we don’t encounter plastic. And we have built a habit of throwing away packaging. By the way, how would you react if we ask you to eat the ham with its wrapper? Would you wash it first? Would you spray sanitizer? Or, would you rub it on your dress to clean the dust?

This opens an insight that along with bringing biodegradable food packaging in the market, manufacturers will need to educate people about how to interact with the packaging. Practically, there are more challenges than we think. Here they are-

  • Thanks to urbanization and industrialization, we now don’t have enough land to grow sugarcane/corn to completely replace plastics in packaging.
  • If not disposed of properly, biodegradable packaging does not decompose easily. Hence, they will again contribute to landfill only.
  • Right now, biodegradable packaging materials cannot beat plastics in terms of cost. Though, natural cellulose fibers are low cost and possess good mechanical strength, but difficult to use at industry level because of their hydrophilic nature.

Read more about how leading brands are moving towards sustainable packaging and educating people to reuse and recycle the packaging.

Concluding Remarks

We require more than 230 million tonnes of packaging every year. And the industries demand functional and cost-effective packaging. Though it is difficult, but not impossible to strike a balance between environment-friendly and cost-effective packaging. Therefore, before jumping into commercialization, thorough research on the side-effects of biodegradable packaging can make it more sustainable in the long run.

Plus, there is a need to educate people about the proper disposal of biodegradable packaging, so that they also won’t end up into landfill.


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