Plastic use has become a hot topic around the world. It was first invented in 1907 and has become a part of everyday life ever since. However, its original benefits (long-lasting, strong, lightweight) are now part of the reason that scientists have researched alternatives to typical plastic polymers, with many being used for food packaging.
Plastic for Food Packaging
Plastic is often used for food packaging because it allows us to do more with less. A small amount of plastic for a food packaging container goes a long way in extending the shelf life of fresh food and reducing food waste. That means we can use less packaging to preserve more food. Researchers have made great strides in finding alternatives for traditional plastics and each of these alternatives fall under a different classification.
So, how do we sort through the plastic to make sense of it all? Let’s start with the basics.
Compostable, Biodegradable or Bio-based?
Plastic alternatives are typically labelled as compostable, biodegradable or bio-based. Here’s a quick definition of each1.
To technically be considered compostable, materials have to meet specific criteria. Under a managed composting program they must be able to:
- Break down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at a rate similar to paper
- Break down to a point that they are not visually distinguishable within 90 days
- Leave no toxic residue.
Biodegradable materials are able to break down on their own by biological means, but there is no restriction on the amount of time they must do this in. This term is often used for organic materials, but can be applied to any material that will eventually break down.
Bio-based materials are made from plant-based or living materials. Bio-based plastics are typically made from things like vegetable oils, corn starch, straw, and can even be made from agricultural by-products.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
You’ve probably heard the motto “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” before – and with good reason! For polymer plastics, following this simple rule is a great way to help reduce your overall plastic consumption. Reducing and reusing plastic is pretty straightforward, but there are a lot of rules around recycling plastics.
Not only does recycling rule, but in this section we’ll cover some general recycling rules that apply to most communities in Canada. Communities across the country don’t recycle the same plastics because they each have access to different resources and systems for recycling. According to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, 95 per cent of Canadians have access to facilities that allow them to recycle PET bottles (like drink containers) plus HDPE (like milk jugs, detergent containers and other cleaners).
Unfortunately, a lot of plastic that goes to recycling facilities actually ends up in landfills because it’s considered contaminated. A simple way to avoid this is to empty and rinse containers before putting them in the recycling bin.
Municipal recycling facilities have fairly stringent rules for the materials they accept, so it’s best to check what your local recycling program accepts. Educating your staff and putting up posters to illustrate which materials are accepted, and how they should be sorted, is a great way to make recycling a part of your business.