Author: Nikhil Narayan Sivadas
Going green is no longer a want, it is a necessity. People today are acutely aware of the need to make the right choices and as a result, companies and big businesses are switching over to green products. It’s a trend that has affected the packaging industry, which has begun to embrace biopolymers in a big way. Here’s why.
Whether you are buying a car, a computer or even food, the production, processing and use of these products have an environmental impact. That is especially true when it comes to the material that these products are packaged in. Most of these are sourced from non-renewable materials and are non-biodegradable, sometimes ending up in landfills and in the world’s oceans, causing huge problems.
This has prompted companies like PepsiCo, Target and Nestle among others, to come together through the project - the New Plastics Economy, to build a more sustainable plastics value chain. This along with increasing awareness among consumers to make clean and green choices is forcing a radical rethink by the packaging industry. And the introduction of biopolymers is opening up a whole new world of possibilities for companies to lessen their carbon footprint.
“The discussion these days is all about the finite resources we have on our planet and how best to utilize it in a sustainable way. This is where biopolymer is having a big impact since sustainability is its main feature," says Mats Holti, Executive Vice President, Technology & Innovations at Walki Oy.
Traditionally, packaging materials use polymers made from non-renewable oil and petrochemical sources to provide barrier properties which protect the product. Materials like polystyrene and polyethylene are examples of petrochemical polymer-based packaging. Biopolymers, on the other hand, are made from renewable, naturally occurring sources such as plant starch, sugar cane, wood residues and so on, making it a popular choice among companies looking to ramp up their green initiatives.
“It has proven to be especially popular in consumer packaging, where a lot of companies are looking at sustainability. Food packaging, drinks packaging etc are a few of the areas where biopolymer use has increased steadily," points out Holti.
Packaging materials that use cardboard and paper materials are already sourcing about 80% to 90% of the material from renewable sources. Adding biopolymers to the mix, says Holti, ensures that companies are sourcing nearly 100% of their product from sustainable sources. An attractive tag for any company to have.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Packaging materials made from biopolymers can also be designed to be biodegradable, making it an almost complete solution for today’s eco-conscious world.
“Not all packaging material needs to be bio-degradable, but in sectors like food packaging, there is demand for this. Depending on the end use of the product, we can produce biopolymer packaging material that degrades much faster. Both from a utility point of view and brand point of view, it makes sense for some companies to want to use biopolymers. And so, they are ready to pay a small premium to ensure that their packaging is eco-friendly," explains Holti.
It also helps that today, biopolymer products can in many cases be made as effective as fossil-based polymer products in providing protection. For instance, Walki now has a range of biopolymer solutions that have excellent barrier properties, including protection from light, moisture, mineral oil, gases and aromas. The biopolymer coating can also impair the spread of bacteria and fungi while ensuring that the packaging material is water repellent and breathable.
The adoption of biopolymers by the packaging industry has grown steadily over the past couple of years, says Holti, who believes that its adoption by the European markets will set the pace for the whole world to pick it up. And in the future thanks to economies of scale, widespread adoption of biopolymers may also cause its production costs to rationalize even further, making it as cost-effective as petrochemical-based packaging.