EcoCook® is the only Swiss certification that recognizes sustainable catering and sustainable restaurants practices at all levels. For consumers, EcoCook® is above all a guarantee of these sustainable practices and commitments.

In this article, we will discuss the packaging, the environmental issues related to these products and what this means for the restaurant owner who wants to find a sustainable product.

Packaging has an impact on our environment not only during its production and distribution but also when it becomes waste. In order to make a responsible choice of packaging, it is necessary to take into account various aspects, in particular:

  • The type of use
  • The environmental impact of equipment or materials during production, distribution and end of life
  • The life expectancy
  • Reuse of material
  • Recyclability
  • The cost

We can currently find different types of materials on the market and the choice is vast (plastic, paper, glass, aluminum, biodegradable materials, composites, etc.).

So how to choose the best material? What is its environmental impact? What is its lifespan? Is it reusable, recyclable? Is it suitable in terms of use and cost?

We will review these aspects for the main groups of materials on our next publications. Each publication will be dedicated to one type of material.

In this second publication we will focus on biodegradable materials.

2nd publication: Biodegradable materials

In the food service sector, biodegradable materials are found in all forms: plates, cups, cutlery, napkins, bags, packaging for take-out services or even for on-site services, etc.

These products began to be manufactured in the 1990s as an alternative to plastic of petrochemical origin and also as an alternative for the valorization of biomass (starches, sugars, cellulose, etc.). The best known products today are PLA, PHAs or plasticized starches (1).

A priori, these products should be collected and composted with the biodegradable residues. However, not all so-called Bio or Biodegradable materials contain only Biodegradable products (2).

A material is biodegradable if it degrades completely under the action of microorganisms present in nature within a short period of time. During their degradation, biodegradable materials emit water, carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4). A biodegradable material can be made from renewable (bio-sourced) or non-renewable raw materials (polymers of fossil origin) (2).

The biodegradation time parameter is therefore important because for a product to qualify as biodegradable, the degradation must occur in a short time in relation to human time, and this independently of the raw material used for its manufacture (bio-based or fossil).

The world production of biodegradable materials is currently around 2 million tons per year and more than 53% of this production is dedicated to packaging (3).

Overview of biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials and their origin

Overview of biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials and their origin (4)

Ecological impact

Biodegradable materials of fossil origin have impacts comparable to those of plastics.

Biosourced materials also have impacts on biodiversity, land use, deforestation, water and energy consumption (5). On the other hand, ecosystems have a limited capacity to absorb biodegradable materials because if they are in too large quantities they can cause eutrophication of the natural environment.

Biodegradable is therefore not systematically synonymous with ecological and zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Degradability and recyclability

The 100% biodegradable and biosourced materials degrade in the environment within 2-3 weeks to 6 months. Below is a comparative table of the degradability of certain materials (6).

Degradation times

Degradation times (6)

However, biodegradable or bio-based materials are sometimes completely biodegradable only under certain conditions of temperature, humidity and oxygen levels. Complete biodegradability in nature is not guaranteed for any of the products. Oxo-degradable materials contain additives and only degrade into microplastics (7).

On the other hand, methanisation and composting centers produce a digestate (material residues) which may also contain undegraded materials, as it is difficult to determine whether the materials contained in green waste are suitable for the different installations. These residues therefore end up in the environment because these digestates are used as fertilizers or to improve the formation of humus in the soil. In this context, sometimes the best disposal solution remains incineration (8).

Biodegradable materials

Biodegradable materials (7)

Advantages and disadvantages of biodegradable materials (9)

Assets :

  • In optimal conditions they are biodegradable and recoverable (composting, methanisation).
  • Renewable raw material for most materials
  • These materials are mostly lightweight
  • Some are transparent

Disadvantages:

  • Environmental impact in terms of water resources, soil, biodiversity, deforestation, etc.
  • When they contain petrochemical components (additives in particular), they are less biodegradable.
  • Low resistance to heat and humidity
  • High cost

Bibliography