written by: Erik Hinrichsen
• edited by: Lamar Stonecypher
• updated: 8/11/2010
This article describes the available environmentally friendly packaging materials. It explains the best options among biodegradable and recyclable materials.
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With the advent of the Green Revolution and increasing scrutiny on environmental effects of traditional packaging materials, the old standbys like Styrofoam packing peanuts are falling by the wayside. A new generation of packaging materials is beginning to hit the market, bringing the promise of more ecologically responsible packaging materials along with them. These "green" materials fall into one of two categories: biodegradable materials and recyclable materials.
There are several things to look into when trying to identify the most environmentally friendly packaging materials. First, the pollutants released when the packaging material is produced should not be ignored. If a particular product cannot be produced without releasing all manner of toxins into the environment, then it cannot be considered to be ecologically responsible. Another item to consider is whether you will be able to recycle the material you use. There's little use in buying a recyclable material if you aren't actually going to recycle it, after all. Pricing, of course, remains extremely important and is a major factor in my recommendation.
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The Best Biodegradable Materials
Biodegradable materials are the new frontier in green products. Manufacturers promise products with the same utility as traditional ones, but which will simply decay away when properly disposed of. These products can be disposed of with ordinary trash (and in some cases the trash bags themselves are biodegradable!), removing the hassle of sorting trash into recyclables. Biodegradable plastics are particularly exciting. Ordinary plastics are difficult to recycle and have limited reuse usability, but can last for thousands of years in landfills.
In my opinion, the best biodegradable packing materials on the market are made from starch-based plastics. These materials use plant starches to make a thermoplastic; additives are used to increasing the heat resistance of the material. Plant starch-based materials also absorb humidity, which is a bonus in packaging.
Plastarch material is one of the best biodegradable materials on the market for packaging. It is made primarily from corn starch. Due to the mixture of materials used (all of them biodegradable), Plastarch material (PSM) is heat resistant. It is this heat resistance that makes PSM so versatile as a packaging material. PSM doesn't soften until 125 degrees Centigrade, and melts at 156 degrees. PSM also absorbs moisture. For use in packaging materials, PSM is made into a foam and then into packing peanuts or other materials.
In addition to being biodegradable, PSM can be safely incinerated. The resulting smoke is non-toxic, and the remaining material has potential use as fertilizer. It is also relatively inexpensive, though slightly more costly than traditional sources.
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The Best Recyclable Packaging Materials
Although Styrofoam is not recyclable at this time, a number of packaging materials now are recyclable. Some plastics may be recycled; to determine whether a product is recyclable, check with the manufacturer. Foams can be difficult to recycle, though some (such as Styrofoam) can be safely incinerated. Polystyrene and other traditional plastics can usually be recycled, and are used in a variety of consumer products. Hence, most plastic bottles are recyclable. However, the manufacture of these plastics is a cause of global warming and requires large amounts of oil. Given the high degree of difficulty in recycling most petroleum-based plastics when in foam form, they cannot be considered an ecologically sound choice.
A better option is paper packing materials, which can simply be recycled like other paper products. Paper packaging can be just as effective as foam in packaging materials, and is very easy to dispose of. It is also lightweight, absorbs moisture, and is fairly resilient. Paper packaging is also usually made from recycled paper; using recycled paper avoids the problem of cutting down trees to make paper, which is not environmentally friendly. Paper products are also inexpensive, since they are made from an inexpensive material.
Another advantage of paper is that it safely biodegrades in landfills. Many biodegradable plastics will not degrade in landfills due to the conditions found there. Petroleum-based plastics degrade into toxic byproducts and take at least 500 years to do so. Paper products, on the other hand, can be disposed of anywhere and don't take long to degrade.