July 13, 2024
Disappearing Packaging.

Disappearing Packaging: How Biodegradable Materials Are Shaping the Future of Product Wrapping

The Rise of Disappearing Packaging

As consumer demand for more eco-friendly options grows, packaging companies are increasingly turning to sustainable materials that break down naturally. Many major brands have committed to using packaging that is recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable by set deadlines over the next decade. The drive toward sustainability is being led by innovations in materials science that allow products to be wrapped or contained without harming the environment.

Bioplastics Take Off

Bioplastics made from biomass sources like vegetable fats and oils are becoming a popular replacement for conventional plastics in packaging. Also known as bio-based plastics, these materials include polylactic acid (PLA) which is produced from corn starch or sugarcane. PLA has similar functionality to petroleum-based plastics but breaks down much faster when discarded. It is already used for food packaging like clamshell containers and snack bags.  Other promising bioplastics include polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) which can fully degrade in soil or water. Disappearing Packaging production methods improved and costs decreased, bioplastics are on track to replace a significant portion of plastic packaging usage worldwide.

Compostable Films and Coatings

For packaging components like plastic films, liners, and sealant layers – compostable materials offer a readily biodegradable solution. Polymers derived from sources like potato starch or vegetable oils form breathable, flexible films ideal for produce bags, bread bags, and other wrappers. When soiled items are discarded in municipal composting systems, these films break down along with food waste without producing microplastics. Coatings applied to paper cups, plates, and takeout containers also utilize compostable materials to complete their decomposition. As community composting expands, more single-use items can utilize these disappearing films and coatings.

No Trace Technologies

Some of the most futuristic packaging innovations aim to leave absolutely no residue behind. Now in development stages, these materials utilize bonding mechanisms that allow structures to simply dissolve away with no remnants. For example, a “glue” derived from milk proteins holds together multilayered capsules or pouches containing food, medicine, or personal care items. When the packet is placed in water, the amino acid chains break apart and the container dissolves in a matter of hours. Similar “dissolvable” structures rely on bonds between biopolymers like alginate that come undone in liquid. If proven safe and scalable, these no-trace solutions could transform how products are secondarily contained and shipped.

The Paper Comeback

As environmental regulations phase out problematic plastic types, paper packaging is making a resurgence. Modern paperboard and cartons leverage renewable biomass feedstocks, can be recycled numerous times, and biodegrade fully at end-of-life. Flexible paper pouches and bags provide an alternative to plastic films, using moisture-resistant coatings or multilayer lamination. Even thermal forming techniques allow paper to mold into rigid clamshells and boxes. Furthermore, paper’s ability to showcase graphics, text, and even variable content makes it well-suited for e-commerce and direct-to-consumer shipping needs. Improved recycling infrastructure and the adoption of innovative paper solutions are restoring this historical packaging material to prominence.

Redefining Standards

As disappearing packaging gains traction, new requirements and guidelines are emerging. The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certifies plastics and paper items that degrade under specified industrial composting conditions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also regulates acceptable timeframes for how long different materials may remain intact before degrading. International organizations continue to refine internationally-recognized standards as well. For example, EN 13432 from Europe specifies testing procedures and criteria for assessing complete biodegradation of packaging in industrial composting environments. Consistent standards give manufacturers confidence to develop new offerings while letting consumers identify truly eco-friendly solutions. Over time, these benchmarks will drive innovation toward fully sustainable, traceless product wrappings.

The Next Evolution

While bioplastics, compostable films, and paper-based replacements have established viable mainstream applications, packaging designers envision even more advanced eco-solutions. Some concepts may literally melt or dissolve away, leaving no substances behind. Others could be entirely consumable and nutritious. Still others may involve programmable materials that alter structure or function based on usage parameters.

Continued cross-disciplinary R&D combining material engineering, chemistry, renewable technologies, and digital fabrication will presumably yield unforeseen sustainable wrapping methods. Ultimately, advancing technologies are guiding the packaging industry to develop disappear-by-design formats that protect products without polluting the planet long-term. Consumers will benefit from even greater selection of truly zero-waste alternatives for all containment needs.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it