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3 sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging

26th April 2021

By Cillian Crosson, Data Analyst at ecoveritas

With the UK Plastic Packaging Tax set to be introduced in April 2022, many brands and retailers are reassessing their use of plastic packaging. In this article, we seek to investigate three common alternatives to plastic and determine how best, if at all, each can serve as a replacement.

Mycelium-based packaging

Mycelium-based packaging

Today, mushrooms are being used to make everything from coffee tables to Stella McCartney handbags. Fungus-based materials, however, are not just a fashion accessory; they can also serve as a sustainable alternative to plastic, especially expanded polystyrene.

Since 2007, an innovative biotech company called Ecovative Design has been harnessing the power of mushrooms to grow materials that can replace plastic packaging. Mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, is at the heart of this process. Mycelium is grown in agricultural waste over several days, acting as a natural glue to bind the biomass together into a durable material. This process occurs at room temperature, using minimal amounts of water and agricultural waste. Mycelium-based packaging therefore has a significant environmental advantage over traditional, petroleum-based foams which are manufactured in a much more resource-intensive manner.

As a living product that naturally self-assembles, mycelium-based packaging can easily be grown to shape with little energy, enabling a significant degree of customisation for brand owners. The packaging is also highly shock resistant and provides good insulation, making it ideal for use as protective packaging for products such as candles and wine bottles. In addition to this, mycelium-based packaging is 100% home compostable. Once finished with the product, end-consumers can easily break the packaging into small pieces and allow the nutrients from the mushrooms to return to the soil in their garden.

Bagasse

When sugarcane stalks are harvested, they are pressed to extract their juices. This process creates a fibrous by-product called bagasse which, lacking any commercial use, has traditionally been disposed of as a waste product. In recent years however, bagasse has become popular across the catering industry as a substitute for takeaway containers, plates, and bowls.

Bagasse material boasts many natural characteristics that make it an ideal candidate for replacing plastic in food packaging. Bagasse is both microwave and freezer safe, with the ability to maintain its structural integrity at a variety of temperatures. The fibrous texture provides a high degree of strength and durability far greater than the polystyrene packaging it is often replacing. Bagasse is also naturally grease and water resistant, making it suitable for hot, wet, and oily foods.

Perhaps the single biggest benefit of using bagasse packaging is that it is 100% compostable and will begin to break down naturally if left in a suitable environment for a number of weeks.

Hemp Bioplastic

Hemp Bioplastic

Some of the earliest plastics were made from organic sources. The use of hemp as a raw material for plastic dates to 1912, when hemp cellulose was first used in the production of cellophane. Despite this, it is only in recent years that packaging made from hemp-based bioplastics have grown in popularity and the industry is still in its infancy.

The term bioplastic refers to any plastic material derived from renewable organic materials. Hemp-based bioplastic, produced from hemp cellulose, is seen as a more sustainable alternative to traditional plastic which is typically derived from petroleum-based raw materials, a highly emissive process. Hemp, on the other hand, is a fast-growing plant capable of flourishing in a variety of climates and soil types. By most estimates, hemp is considered a non-water intensive crop. It rapidly accumulates biomass and can renew up to three times per year, sequestering CO2 in the process. Hemp has a high fibre yield per acre, requiring about half the land of cotton to produce the same yield. In addition to this, hemp is also a highly resilient plant which does not require pesticides or herbicides to grow on an industrial scale.

It is important to note however, that while the cultivation of hemp is widely considered an environmentally sustainable process, bioplastics have been criticised by some for their end-of-life options. Although most bioplastics are recyclable, they ultimately need to be separated into different streams for processing and can cause more harm than good if they end up in the same sorting stream as regular plastics. The majority of UK recycling plants can effectively separate these streams, enabling consumers to easily recycle bioplastics in their kerbside recycling bins, however the same cannot be said for all international markets. Furthermore, bioplastics labelled as bio-degradable, compostable or home compostable are typically not recyclable and, should they reach marine environments as many plastics do, are unable to degrade in this environment. Therefore, they could still carry a tax implication for businesses.

At present, 100% hemp-based bioplastics are still uncommon. Hemp typically constitutes about 25-30% of the plastic in hemp-based bioplastics, with the remainder consisting of different thermoplastics, such as fossil fuel and other bioplastics. However, the sector is still nascent, and it is thought that as demand grows, technological improvements will enable hemp to comprise a greater proportion of this. Indeed, it is estimated that by 2030 bioplastics will account for 40% of the plastic industry and undoubtedly hemp will play a role in this.

For businesses looking to switch to the above alternatives as we move closer to the arrival of the UK Plastic Packaging Tax, it is worth noting that some tax implications on compostable and biodegradable plastics may remain. For advice on the UK Plastic Packaging Tax and what it may mean for your business, get in touch with the ecoveritas team here.