Biodegradable vs. Recyclable – Which is the Better Packaging Solution?

28 05 2013

We all know that packaging waste is a major issue. But what is the most feasible solution? Today there  are fundamentally three choices for consumer packaged goods companies: non-recyclable, recyclable and biodegradable (reusable packaging, a la glass milk jugs are a fourth option that is  quickly disappearing.) This question is incredibly important as we as a  society try to find a balance between consumerism, capitalism and  environmentalism.

Please read on and join the discussion. My hope is to get the great minds of TreeHugger engaged in this vital debate.

Non-recyclable has very limited choices outside a landfill or incinerator. At TerraCycle we are pioneering upcycling solutions for non-recyclable waste streams through our free national collection programs, the Brigades.  However, these programs (almost 12,000 collection sites strong) are  merely a drop in the ocean when compared to the many billions of used  packages discarded every year.

Recycling works for many papers, plastics and metals. While an  amazing solution – the only catch with recycling is that only the  polymer of the waste stream is viewed as valuable (the shape is viewed  as waste). In the end, with an investment of energy (less than what it  takes to extract and make virgin materials) the valuable raw materials  of the package can be rescued and reused.

Finally, biodegradable packaging, the latest step in sustainable  packaging design. Many folks within the consumer products industry are  looking at biodegradable packaging as the ultimate solution to the  packaging waste problem. Typically based on PLA,  biodegradable packaging is a set of polymers that are derived from  renewable raw materials like starch (e.g. corn, potato, tapioca etc),  cellulose, soy protein, lactic acid etc., not hazardous in production  and decompose back into carbon dioxide, water, biomass etc. when  discarded properly. The challenges with this solution are as follows:

1. PLA is based on bio-plastics (just like  bio-diesel) and according to estimates there isn’t enough land in the  world to grow enough corn (and other suitable crops) to make enough PLA  to substitute out traditional plastic consumption.

2. What do you do with the biodegradable package once you’re done  with it? If you live in San Francisco (or a handful of other major  cities in the US) you can put it into the green waste can for  composting or you may put it into your personal compost pile  But if you don’t live in a city with a green waste collection program  or you don’t have your own composting pile you’re out of luck since  very little biodegrades in a traditional landfill (due to lack of  oxygen flow).

3. Biodegradable and compostable plastics currently cost drastically  more than traditional plastics (hopefully this can change over time).  This price difference deters many companies, who are still focused on  the traditional bottom line.

So the question is this: How should PLA be leveraged? Is it the  solution, and if so for what is it optimal for? If PLA isn’t viable,  what is the true mass market scalable solution to packaging waste and  what should we be pushing major companies to consider?




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