Acting sustainably for companies does not just mean checking materials, supply chains and fair production conditions. It is also a question of environmentally friendly packaging and labels.
But the answer is not always easy, because the range of packaging materials alone is gigantic. Whether packaging made from bioplastics or compostable bags
Whether biodegradable or bio-based – these days you can package practically anything in anything. Below we present the most important types and clarify whether the perfect packaging exists.
Topics at a glance:
- Biodegradable packaging
- Compostable packaging – all petroleum, or what?
- Packaging made from renewable raw materials
- Is paper really better than plastic?
- Last hope: cloth or linen bag
Biodegradable means that the packaging can be broken down by microorganisms and bacteria into biomass, water and carbon (CO 2 ). Theoretically, this could also happen in the wild. However, according to a study by marine biologist Richard Thompson, this takes several years in the air and under sunlight 1 . However, rotting in the sea or underground hardly occurs. This is why biodegradable packaging cannot be disposed of with organic waste, but must be sorted into conventional plastic. However, the mixture of recyclable materials can become contaminated. This in turn makes recycling and reuse more difficult. For this reason, biodegradable packaging is often simply burned with normal plastic.
Compostable packaging – all petroleum or what?
If packaging is compostable, it means that it is biodegradable - but only under certain conditions. Under constant conditions and temperatures and within precise periods of time, the product can be composted into biomass, water and CO 2 . However, many users do not have their own compost, let alone an industrial compost facility that maintains a constant 60o and decomposes the packaging within 12 weeks( 2) . It is usually not possible to dispose of compostable bags fairly, which means they end up in normal plastic waste.
Important to know: Biodegradable and compostable does not mean that the packaging is made from organic materials. Because they are usually made from petroleum-based polymers.
Packaging made from renewable raw materials
Packaging made from potatoes, sugar cane and corn is one of the so-called bio-based materials. These are often grown in monocultures and use a lot of energy to grow them - almost as much as conventional plastic bags. Although CO 2 and petroleum are saved, the cultivation of the raw materials still requires diesel for the machines, fertilizers and pesticides. Unfortunately, renewable raw materials in this form are not a truly sustainable solution. Bio-based does not necessarily mean biodegradable.
Price question: Is paper better than plastic?
The paper alternative also uses an enormous amount of energy to produce, almost twice as much as a plastic bag. Most paper packaging is made from virgin fibers. These require a lot of water during the process and have to be treated with numerous chemicals. At the same time, reusability is rather limited because they are neither tear-resistant nor water-repellent. A paper bag must be used at least three times for the energy expenditure in the manufacturing process to be worthwhile . (3)
The invisible disadvantages of plastic
So should you use plastic packaging? Its production costs are low, it is stable and recyclable. In reality, only 15 percent of plastic waste is recycled in Germany as a whole ( 4) . This usually results in inferior materials that can only be used in a very limited way. The rest is exported, mainly to China, or burned. A waste incineration plant generates around 1.5 percent of Germany's energy consumption every year. Combustion releases ash, toxic substances and metals - dioxin and furan, for example, are carcinogenic and can cause respiratory or nervous diseases ( 5) .
Thanks to modern filter technologies, air emissions have been significantly reduced in recent years. In the end, 350,000 tons of filter dust remain, which are liquefied in salt solutions and have to be stored in mine tunnels under strict safety precautions. What is left becomes slag, a substitute building material that is rarely used because it contains many heavy metals and toxins and is banned in many countries.
Last hope: the fabric or linen bag
The cotton fabric bag is often offered as a last hope. In order to be an alternative, this must definitely be used more often. So don't hoard a lot at home! The CO 2 emissions during the production of the bag are 1.7 kg. This is significantly more than the 60 grams produced by paper or the 120 grams of carbon produced by plastic ( 6) .
Conclusion: There is no perfect packaging
In general, it is advisable to keep packaging material as small as possible and to reuse it at least as often as necessary to compensate for the energy required to produce it. As an example: For cotton bags that would be around 50 to 100 times.
Regardless, the following applies: There is no perfect packaging. Because no matter what you use, there is always a chain of processes behind it and the question of disposal is usually unresolved. Therefore, the best way to do justice to the true value and effort of things is to use them again, again and again.