Biodegradable vs. Recyclable: Which is the Better Packaging Solution?

Energy Bar Wrappers photo

Energy Bar Wrappers Collected at TerraCycle HQ.

We all know that packaging waste is a major issue. But what is the most feasible solution? Today there are fundamentally three choices for consumer packaged goods companies: non-recyclable, recyclable and biodegradable (reusable packaging, a la glass milk jugs are a fourth option that is quickly disappearing.) This question is incredibly important as we as a society try to find a balance between consumerism, capitalism and environmentalism.

Please read on and join the discussion. My hope is to get the great minds of TreeHugger engaged in this vital debate.Non-recyclable has very limited choices outside a landfill or incinerator. At TerraCycle we are pioneering upcycling solutions for non-recyclable waste streams through our free national collection programs, the Brigades. However, these programs (almost 12,000 collection sites strong) are merely a drop in the ocean when compared to the many billions of used packages discarded every year.

Recycling works for many papers, plastics and metals. While an amazing solution - the only catch with recycling is that only the polymer 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.

Finally, biodegradable packaging, the latest step in sustainable packaging design. Many folks within the consumer products industry are looking at biodegradable packaging as the ultimate solution to the packaging waste problem. 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 etc), cellulose, soy protein, lactic acid etc., not hazardous in production and decompose back into carbon dioxide, water, biomass etc. when discarded properly. The challenges with this solution are as follows:

1. PLA is based on bio-plastics (just like bio-diesel) and according to estimates there isn’t enough land in the world to grow enough corn (and other suitable crops) to make enough PLA to substitute out traditional plastic consumption.

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 major cities in the US) you can put it into the green waste can for composting or you may put it into your personal compost pile (learn how here!) But if you don’t live in a city with a green waste collection program or you don’t have your own composting pile you’re out of luck since very little biodegrades in a traditional landfill (due to lack of oxygen flow).

3. Biodegradable and compostable plastics currently cost drastically more than traditional plastics (hopefully this can change over time). This price difference deters many companies, who are still focused on the traditional bottom line.

So the question is this: How should PLA be leveraged? Is it the solution, and if so for what is it optimal for? If PLA isn’t viable, what is the true mass market scalable solution to packaging waste and what should we be pushing major companies to consider?

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