Elizabeth Kotoulis, Head of Product at Twipes, on Biodegradable Packaging

Biodegradable Packaging: Market Savior or Expensive Bust?

Biodegradable packaging isn’t a new concept. In fact, almost 100 years ago, in 1926, French scientist Maurice Lemoigne discovered PHA plastics produced naturally through fermentation and they could biodegrade with certain bacteria. But biodegradable materials have never truly been an economically efficient option for packaging, always costing more than traditional packaging materials such as plastics, paperboards or aluminum wraps. In 2021 however, the tables could have turned potentially with a huge opportunity and the potential for economic parity.

The pandemic was extremely tough for many industries, and now as we look towards recovery, many are asking the questions of ‘how do they speed up the recovery process?’

One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to differentiate your product offerings and embrace change. As many product industries look for new innovative ways to differentiate themselves in 2021, to break out of their rut and come out stronger on the other side from the pandemic, this article asks the question of whether or not biodegradable packaging can be that key differentiator or whether it is just an expensive folly, without tangible economic benefits?

The Upside

The potential market upside is huge. Many local, state and national governments across the globe have utilized the cover of the pandemic to pass long term laws regarding product packaging. New York has reinstated a ban on Styrofoam – the light, airy material used for takeout food cartons. Across the pond, in England, the government has implemented a Plastic Packaging Tax.

These all demonstrate opportunities for SME’s to get ahead of the curve economically, by changing supply chains to biodegradable packaging, they would avoid bans in certain markets and potentially taxes too. One SME that has well utilized this opportunity is London-based Aeropowder. Aeropowder produce alternative packaging with insulation properties using chicken feathers. Their product pack is 95% feathers and 5% bio-binder, wrapped in a compostable sheet. This biodegradable product is meant to insulate perishable food and replace polystyrene in the packaging sphere.

As for their economic success? Well, the proof is in the pudding (hopefully pudding that is prepackaging used biodegradable materials!) – In November 2018, in an interview, co-founder Elena Dieckmann mentioned that she didn’t at the time “even know if Aeropowder will be successful in the long-term”, and yet now in 2021, using the market opportunities presented to them, Aeropowder have successfully raised over half a million pounds through a crowdfunding campaign, over achieving their crowdfunding goals by 211% !

The Downside

But that’s not to say that there aren’t any downsides at all.  The two most notable of which being 1) the economic factors involved in supply chain sourcing of biodegradable materials, and also 2) the environmental factors of the behaviors they promote.

The economic factors are quite straightforward. Biodegradable materials are currently, as global market prices stand, not an economically efficient option for packaging when measured in large scale quantities, always costing more than traditional packaging materials such as plastics, paperboards or aluminum wraps. In fact, Recycled plastics cost an extra $72 per tonne in comparison to raw plastics, and biodegradables cost an extra $114 per tonne in comparison.

Until more consumers begin to demand eco-friendly alternatives by voting with their wallets, or until lawmakers pass more ‘plastic-taxes’, there just aren’t enough economic incentives at the moment to drive large and meaningful change on a global scale.

The environmental factors involved are more nuanced. Not all biodegradable products are compostable in your own garden, not all biodegradables break down in industrial landfill, and not all biodegradables break down in ocean water. So if an ordinary consumer just sees a product packaging labelled as ‘biodegradable’, how are they supposed to dispose of it?

Furthermore, some packaging materials take multiple years to break down, yet they’re still labelled as ‘biodegradable’ because they technically do eventually break down, if in the right conditions.  And there is also a certain level of consumer confusion over the mixing up of ‘biodegradable’ and ‘recyclable’ labels.

That’s why, we here at Twipes, took a slightly different approach that keeps things as simple as possible for the consumers. The actual Twipes product itself are wet wipes that are truly biodegradable & truly flushable – breaking down in water within just 3 hours and breaking down in landfill within just 7 days. But we needed a packaging option that further backed up our values, whilst keeping the product costs economically viable.

That’s why Twipes’ packaging is 100% recyclable and we take care of the entire recycling process ourselves! When sold online in a subscription service, each of the subscription boxes comes with a free return label to mail back the empty packaging once finished. What this means is that the consumer confusion is gone entirely – no more figuring out how to or where to dispose of it effectively, or feeling guilty about what happens to that packaging when disposed, if it will actually get recycled or if it will be too expensive to get re-used…

We’ve directly partnered with manufacturers to ensure that they are recycled, and currently all empty & used Twipes packaging is recycled and utilized in a supply chain for toothbrush packaging!

The Future

That’s not to say that it will always be this way. The future of biodegradable and recyclable materials for packaging is very bright – just recently a startup out of Imperial College in London, has developed the world’s first both biodegradable and recyclable plastic! So there’s clearly a lot of positives on the horizon. It’s just a question of how fast the timelines can move, and whether biodegradables can serve as an opportunity for 2021, or if they are just another expense to add on to an already costly recovery for SME’s?

About the Author

Elizabeth Kotoulis – Head of Product @ Twipes

Based out of Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Elizabeth works with brands, media companies, marketers and influencers on commercializing biotransformation internationally. Elizabeth is an ardent advocate of Twipes’ mission and focus on positive global impact. Prior to Twipes, Elizabeth worked in education, healthcare and consumer goods, with an academic background of West Virginia University at Parkersburg and Florida State University.

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