Biodegradable vs. Recyclable

Which is a better solution? We all know that packaging waste is a major issue. But what is the most feasible solution? This question is incredibly important as we try to find a balance between consumerism, capitalism and environmentalism.

Today there are fundamentally three choices for consumer packaged goods in terms of end of life handling:

  • Non-recyclable
  • Recyclable
  • Biodegradable

Non-recyclable has very limited choices outside of landfill or incinerator. There is today a new trend of up cycling solutions for non-recyclable waste streams through collection programs, such as TeraCycle’s “The Brigades”. However, these programs are very minimal in terms of their reach and scale when compared to the many billions of used packages discarded every year.

Recycling works for many papers, plastics and metals (identified by symbols and numbers). While an amazing solution – the only catch with recycling is that only the polymer (base material) 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 and the polymer stays alive.

Biodegradable packaging is the latest step in sustainable packaging design. 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), cellulose, soy protein and lactic acid, etc., and decompose back into carbon dioxide, water, biomass when discarded in an Industrial Composting system. Experts within the consumer products industry are looking at biodegradable packaging as the ultimate solution to the packaging waste problem, however, many challenges exist before this can become a viable solution for mass marketing products. These include:

  1. PLA is a common material that is based on bio-plastics (just like bio-diesel), according to most estimates there isn’t enough land in the world to grow enough corn (and other suitable crops) to make enough PLA to make it a practical substitute on any large scale.
  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 cities in the US you may have a green waste can for industrial composting materials. Unfortunately industrial composting is not very popular in the US, thus making it a very limited solution. Home composting conditions will NOT match the industrial composting temperature capabilities and most bio plastics may remain in their current shape for an estimated 100 years or more.
    • Many people think that putting biodegradable material into the garbage will be better than non-biodegradable materials. But that is not the case. Very little of our “normal” waste including food scrapes break down (by design) in a traditional landfill due to lack of oxygen flow. So your leftover steak will likely be sitting next to your bio fork 75 years from now if we were to dig it up. Gross but true!
  3. Biodegradable and compostable plastics currently cost more than traditional plastics. This price difference deters many companies, but some that seek the biodegradable solutions for marketing purposes may reduce the actual product quality to compensate for the more expensive packaging costs.

What’s the bottom line?

Until industrial composing becomes a common method for managing waste throughout the country, recyclable packaging is the better solution for the environment. This conclusion is especially true when you consider that recycling keeps a substantial portion of the polymer alive so it can be re-used over and over again.