Bioplastics: A Sustainable Solution for Agro-food Packaging for the future

bioplastics
Food Processing and Manufacturing

Yuting Han

PhD student in Chemical Engineering

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With the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations in 2016, industries across the globe are re-evaluating their practices to achieve these goals (United Nations Development Programme, 2023). Food is an integral part of the global economy. Its production, processing, and transport are interconnected with the sustainable development goals, especially SDG 2, which focuses on zero hunger, and SDG 12 on sustainable production and consumption. Thus, the interest of the agri-food sector is shifting towards alternative sustainable approaches for the assurance of food safety through utilizing eco-friendly packaging for food preservation in line with the SDGs (Crevel, 2016). It is recognized that sustainable packaging is an integral part of the farm-to-table process for agricultural products to ensure food safety, and reduce wastage and post-harvest/processing losses while minimizing environmental impact. Current approaches employed in the agri-food sector for food packaging utilize conventional materials such as laminates, plastics, glass, metals and polyethylene. These materials have over the years proven to be not only unsustainable, contribute to environmental waste and, in some cases, can cause health risks to food consumers, such as Bisphenol A in some packaging materials, which is known to be carcinogenic when leached into foods (Almeida et al., 2018). Therefore, there is a need to employ newer alternative materials for agri-food packaging. Bioplastics have emerged as a potent alternative that can be a promising solution to the challenge faced by the agri-food sector for a more sustainable natural material for food packaging and preservation in the future.

Conventional plastics

Conventional plastics are plastics made from non-renewable petrochemical-based sources. They have the advantage of high production, low cost and good functional properties, but they also have a huge environmental impact. Effective and safe disposal of waste plastics has always been an issue, and currently, the major disposal routes are incineration, landfills, and entry into the natural environment (Chamas et al., 2020). Firstly, it takes decades or even centuries to degrade, but most food packaging has a very short use phase, which results in the time cost of degradation far outweighing the use (Crevel, 2016). Secondly, because open burning produces large amounts of greenhouse gases and toxic irritants that pollute the atmosphere, most countries have resorted to landfilling as a relatively less polluting method of disposal (Alabi et al., 2019). However, landfilling can cause problems with polymers accumulating in the environment, damaging agroecosystems and affecting soil fertility. Finally, plastic waste that enters the natural environment, such as the oceans, can contaminate water bodies and harm fish health, and the degradation of water sources can affect the growth of crops and animals (Chamas et al., 2020). In addition, these harmful plastic particles in the natural environment may accumulate in living organisms and be passed along the food chain, affecting human health (Crevel, 2016).

Bioplastics

Bioplastics are usually made from renewable bio-based raw materials and can be naturally broken down into harmless substances by biological means, such as bacteria, fungi, etc (Adrah et al., 2020).

There are many benefits of using bioplastics in agri-food packaging. Firstly, more and more studies are using biobased materials that are food or agricultural waste, which reduces dependence on finite resources and, promotes the sustainability of the biomass value chain and generates higher incomes for biomass providers, such as farmers (Crevel, 2016). Secondly, bioplastics have a low environmental impact. Due to their decomposability, they do not persist in the environment as long as traditional plastic packaging, reducing soil contamination and helping maintain the health of agroecosystems. Then, they can act as fertilisers and soil amendments during biodegradation or decomposition and composting, promoting sustainable agriculture. As bioplastics decompose, they release nutrients into the soil, enriching it and increasing crop yields (Chah et al., 2022). Finally, they can alleviate the problem of plastic pollution in the natural environment. Reducing the pollution of oceans and waters by plastic build-up protects the quality of marine ecosystems and water resources.

Despite the potential benefits of bioplastic products, certain barriers may hinder the shift to the use of bioplastics in agricultural packaging. First, bio-based food packaging is more expensive to produce than fossil-based packaging, largely due to economies of scale and the price competitiveness of crude oil (Rosenboom et al., 2022). However, from an environmental impact and waste management perspective, the long-term savings may outweigh the upfront investment. In addition, consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for products packaged with environmentally friendly materials, which provides a competitive advantage in the marketplace for producers and users. It is believed that the production cost of bioplastics can be controlled through scientific research and production scale-up. Then, the lack of policy support for biobased packaging and the lack of regulations for applying biobased materials in food and agricultural products have constrained the entry of new materials into the market. Clear regulatory and financial incentives remain critical for large-scale applications of bioplastics with a truly sustainable impact in the agricultural packaging market (Rosenboom et al., 2022). Table 1 highlights the comparison between the environmental benefits of bioplastics and the practical and economic advantages of traditional plastics. The choice between these materials often depends on the specific use case, environmental priorities, and available infrastructure for recycling or composting.

Despite these challenges, adopting bio-based plastics to replace fossil-based plastic packaging in the agri-food industry remains promising (Nanda et al., 2022). With increased consumer demand, regulatory support, and technological innovation, biodegradable materials will revolutionize how we package and consume food. The possibilities for biodegradable packaging are endless, from compostable pouches for fresh produce to bioplastic boxes and bags for meat and dairy products. As individuals and businesses, we have the responsibility and ability to drive this change and positively impact the planet. Farmers can contribute to the environment’s health by choosing biodegradable packaging options and promoting sustainable agricultural practices, leading the way to a greener, healthier future for future generations.

Table 1 – advantages and disadvantages of bio-plastics compared to traditional (normal) plastics

Normal Plastics

 

References

Adrah, K., Ananey-Obiri, D., & Tahergorabi, R. (2020). Development of bio-based and biodegradable plastics: novelty, advent, and alternative technology. Handbook of Nanomaterials and Nanocomposites for Energy and Environmental Applications, 1-25.

Alabi, O. A., Ologbonjaye, K. I., Awosolu, O., & Alalade, O. E. (2019). Public and environmental health effects of plastic wastes disposal: a review. J Toxicol Risk Assess, 5(021), 1-13.

Almeida, S., Raposo, A., Almeida‐González, M., & Carrascosa, C. (2018). Bisphenol A: Food exposure and impact on human health. Comprehensive reviews in food science and food safety, 17(6), 1503-1517.

Chah, C. N., Banerjee, A., Gadi, V. K., Sekharan, S., & Katiyar, V. (2022). A systematic review on bioplastic-soil interaction: Exploring the effects of residual bioplastics on the soil geoenvironment. Science of The Total Environment, 851, 158311.

Chamas, A., Moon, H., Zheng, J., Qiu, Y., Tabassum, T., Jang, J. H., Abu-Omar, M., Scott, S. L., & Suh, S. (2020). Degradation rates of plastics in the environment. ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, 8(9), 3494-3511.

Nanda, S., Patra, B. R., Patel, R., Bakos, J., & Dalai, A. K. (2022). Innovations in applications and prospects of bioplastics and biopolymers: A review. Environmental Chemistry Letters, 20(1), 379-395.

Rosenboom, J.-G., Langer, R., & Traverso, G. (2022). Bioplastics for a circular economy. Nature Reviews Materials, 7(2), 117-137.

 

Further Reading

Smart Packaging Functionality and Benefits

Potential risks of food packaging plastic waste on human health and the environment

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