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Why innovative sustainable packaging materials aren’t scaling

As the world seeks sustainable solutions to combat plastic pollution, many businesses are exploring innovative materials to reduce their plastic packaging footprint and avoid expensive single-use plastic taxes and EPR fees.

Many companies are choosing to make short-term fixes in the form of material swaps introducing novel, compostable or paper-based materials to replace plastic. Although, on the face of it, this may sound fine, in reality, material swaps can lead to an increase in carbon, water and soil impacts. It can also add to the problem of cross-contamination between organic and mechanical recycling, which is now being picked up by policymakers and may lead to further regulations.

There is now a whole range of novel sustainable packaging materials including dissolvable packaging, edible algae films, residual agricultural waste and not-quite-plastic alternatives

Novel, plastic alternative packaging materials

There is now a whole range of novel sustainable packaging materials that brands could, theoretically use including dissolvable packagingedible algae filmsresidual agricultural waste and not-quite-plastic alternatives. However, scaling these innovations has proven challenging due to several key barriers. In this article, we delve into the unique challenges faced by sustainable packaging materials and how they impact both businesses and the environment.

The Price Barrier

One significant obstacle hindering the widespread adoption of innovative materials is their higher cost compared to virgin plastic. These more sustainable alternatives can be 5 to 10 times more expensive, making them less appealing to businesses seeking cost-effective solutions. Moreover, some of these materials may still be subject to plastics taxes and penalised under Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), further deterring businesses.

It is essential to ensure that any material changes align with the overarching goals of minimising packaging and reducing environmental impacts

Why are novel materials being penalised?

A crucial issue with many new, innovative materials lies in their lack of recyclability. They often lack a clear end-of-life solution because they are designed to dissolve and degrade in the open environment, or compost. As a result, policymakers may still categorise them as plastics, subjecting them to blanket policy bans and taxes meant to curb plastic pollution. This classification raises concerns about potential litter risks and undermines their acceptance as recyclable materials.

In addition, these materials cannot be recycled into virgin equivalent materials, which makes them susceptible to higher EPR fees. It costs waste managers more to process these materials, and even ones designed to go through anaerobic digestion will be separated out.

Why are compostable plastics filtered out?

Organic waste processors want valuable, organic matter that provides nutrients to the soil – they don’t want compostable plastic, no matter what standard it meets for biodegradability. Compostable packaging, therefore, has little or no commercial value to the reprocessing business – it is a contaminant. Waste processors find it difficult to distinguish between compostable and non-compostable plastic, resulting in anaerobic materials being filtered out along with all the other plastics. This hinders their integration into organic waste streams, and consequently, compostable packaging lacks commercial value for reprocessing businesses, creating another significant barrier to its widespread use.

What can brands do?

While innovative materials present exciting possibilities for sustainable packaging, their scalability faces significant challenges. Price disparities, misconceptions about recyclability, and policy considerations all play a part in hindering widespread adoption.

Before transitioning to a different packaging material, businesses should review their strategic goals and sustainability Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for packaging. It is essential to ensure that any material changes align with the overarching goals of minimising packaging and reducing environmental impacts. Knee-jerk swaps can lead to unintended consequences, such as increased carbon and water usage, all of which negatively impact biodiversity. A more thoughtful approach involves first conducting a comprehensive Packaging Audit before making any changes.

How can Root help?

Root Packaging Audit Root Packaging Audit offers a quick-turnaround risk assessment tailored to individual businesses and market-based regulatory risks. The audit includes a thorough evaluation of your packaging material
As. It considers immediate and long-term policy risks, social and environmental impacts and recyclability in your key markets. This in-depth analysis allows you to pinpoint any challenges and recommends improvements in a simple, tailored action plan that aligns with your sustainability objectives.