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Consumers give biodegradable packaging the thumbs up, but are confused over terminology.

 “There is also confusion around the term biodegradable in general because people are confused about what this means. Some people think these materials can degrade in the open environment, and that is not the case.”

UK consumers think that bio-based, compostable and biodegradable packaging are environmentally friendly but are confused about how to define them, according to a new study by think tank Green Alliance.

The study called Plastic promises -What the grocery sector is really doing about packaging was unveiled today (9 January).

The report states: “Over 80% of consumers think biodegradable or compostable plastic is environmentally friendly, but there is little understanding of what the terms mean and how the material should be dealt with.

“Our interviewees wanted a clearer approach to where it should be used and how it should be marked to avoid confusing consumers and potentially causing more problems.”

The retailers and brands who were interviewed for the report, but gave anonymous responses, said that they were wary about replacing conventional plastic with these novel plastics in their packaging in the light of public anxiety about plastic polluting the oceans.

Some were worried that confusion could potentially harm the environment if people either put “compostable” plastic in with conventional plastic, or littered it, wrongly assuming it would biodegrade like an apple core.

Some retailers were worried about cost, with one supermarket representative suggesting: “It’s difficult to see how that can get to a realistic cost position.”

One noted: “We trialled doing a fully biodegradable bottle… and it was just a disaster and we had to pull it and no one knew where to put it. It didn’t really biodegrade very well.”

One firm is quoted as saying: “Consumers are hugely confused about what bio-based, compostable and biodegradable mean. We are aware that (by switching from plastic to other materials) we may, in some cases, be increasing our carbon footprint.”

The report’s spokeswoman Libby Peake told Bio Market Insights (BMI): “There is also confusion around the term biodegradable in general because people are confused about what this means. Some people think these materials can degrade in the open environment, and that is not the case.”

Commenting on the future of sustainable packaging, Peake said: “We need more leadership from government to see the problems we are developing with single-use and throwaway culture, rather than focusing specifically on the plastic element of it. The plastic element is important, but needs to considered with climate change and other environmental impacts.”

Although there has been criticism directed towards the terminology of biodegradable packaging, the industry is likely to maintain that this material still benefits the environment more than fossil fuel-based packaging.

Commenting in BMI’s WBM Outlook 2020, Lucy Frankel, environmental and communications director at plant-based compostable foodservice firm Vegware, said: “All in all, one has to remember that it is a great thing to use renewable resources and move away from using finite materials. No matter what happens to the material at the end of use, you have to remember that there are sustainability benefits for not using something finite to create a product.”

Elsewhere, the Green Alliance (@GreenAllianceUK) report also reveals that several supermarkets are selling more drinks in coated cartons under the assumption that they can be recycled. In fact, the Green Alliance says, the UK only has the facilities to recycle a third of the coated containers in circulation.

The think tank also says that the replacement of plastic with glass is more polluting to transport because it is heavier and can create more carbon emissions.

If you were interested in this bioeconomy story, you may also be interested in the ones below.

Read: Deterioration of compostable bags in the sea happens rapidly, new study finds.

Read: UK government launches consultation on standards for biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics, as it unveils new sustainable materials fund.

Read: Bio-based industry gives lukewarm response to UK’s first bio-economy strategy.

Read: UK to launch call for evidence on development of standards for bio-based and biodegradable plastics.

Read: Japan pledges to promote plant-based bioplastics to tackle marine waste.

Read: Canada and Italy promote national bioeconomy strategies.

Read: Industry experts query whether bioplastics can solve the plastic pollution problem at sustainability conference.

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