A growing number of food and beverage personnel ask us why we can’t supply eco-friendly, biodegradable paper for the single-serve sugar packaging we personalise for their restaurants and hotels.
Individually wrapped sugar is certainly more hygienic than being served in bowls or jars, especially whilst dining out (as we explain in our recent post One lump or…none? Shunning unhygienic food offerings) and particularly when ordering from takeaways. There is also the added benefit of being able to brand the packaging.
Currently, food-grade paper has a polyethylene (PE) coating which acts as a barrier between the printed paper and the sugar. This stops any moisture – for instance the steam from hot food being served or from a barista preparing fresh coffee – dissolving the sugar and breaking down the rigid cube shape, which can damage the appearance of the personalised packaging.
As branded graphics are printed with ink, PE coated paper also stops any likelihood of the ink coming into contact with the sugar. We currently use five different sugar packers across Europe, all of whom use flexographic machines for printing our sticks, cube wrappers and sachets, using different inks depending on the packaging and machinery.
Flexography is the packaging industry’s preferred print method worldwide. It’s a relief printing process, in which the print motive is transferred from the rubber or photopolymer printing plate to the substrate using inks, which dry by means of the evaporation of solvents, water or UV curing.
Eco-friendly printing inks
We are often asked: Do you print with soy-based, vegetable-based, or water-based inks? What they are really getting at is: Are your inks eco-friendly?
The answer is…complicated. The truth is that there is no ink available today that is 100% free from non-renewable materials. Inks contain a few different components: pigments (to provide colour), additives (to improve performance, drying time, resistance to smudging, etc), and carriers (to transfer the ink onto the substrate before drying off to leave only the pigment and additive behind). Carriers account for 70-80% of a bucket of ink. Pigments account for 10-20% and additives account for 5-15%.
Algae ink: the most sustainable ink in the world?
Algae ink is one of the first real innovations in the ink industry in the past few decades. Instead of 80% petroleum being used as the basis for the black pigment (the vast majority of black print ink is carbon black, derived from fossil fuels), algae ink’s pigment is derived from renewable algae cells (that are actually a waste product from an algae biofuel operation).
In fact, algae ink could well be the future for eco-friendly printing, being the first water-based ink and using algae cells for its pigment. Back In 2015, in his TedxMileHigh talk, Dr Scott Fulbright also introduced the idea. A leading UK global ink specialist, however, informs us that both algae and vegetable inks would increase production costs considerably at present. Hopefully, future innovation will drive down these costs.
Alternatives to PE barriers?
Progress is being made to produce paper without a PE coating, using a water-based barrier coating that creates an eco-friendly, fully recyclable and repulpable alternative to polycoated and wax papers. US-manufactured EcoShield® Super Barrier Paper can be used in a variety of applications, including wrapping oily, greasy or other moisture-sensitive products, so it won’t be long before we see this product applied to food-grade paper.
How about polylactic acid (PLA)?
In India, Safepack Industries claim to have developed a biodegradable PLA coating for sugar sachets, although they don’t yet export to the UK. The general consensus of our current sugar packers is that once again, this alternative coated paper is too costly, but also that the production process is much slower than that of the current PE coated paper.
In contrast to petroleum-based thermoplastics, PLA is a polymer made from renewable resources such as corn starch, tapioca roots, or sugarcane. Having properties comparable to other plastics in the industry, coupled with consumer demand for less impactful materials, has triggered its rapid entrance to the plastic market as a competitive commodity.
However, despite claims that PLA is the answer to replacing PE, in reality, it does not “biodegrade” appreciably faster than any other plastic. Even though PLA plastic is classed as biodegradable, it will only be decomposed within three months under specific and controlled composting conditions, i.e. when commercial compost facilities are available. In landfill, where a large part of it will end up, it can take anywhere between 100 and 1,000 years to decompose.
There’s also an underlying moral issue with its production. The world’s rising population raises concerns over whether it’s ethical to allocate entire crops of corn, for example, towards the production of bioplastics, rather than feeding the population in need. With almost 821 million people in the world – one in nine – not having access to enough food, it certainly food for thought.
Is ‘oxo-degradable’ any better?
Oxo-degradable material is often found in products such as plastic bags, and is also being used for packing sugar, with claims by manufacturers that it is biodegradable. However, a group of industry bodies, who have called upon the Government for a total ban on oxo-degradable materials, claims it contains additives meant to accelerate the fragmentation of plastics into microplastics.
Research commissioned by DEFRA and the EU has “demonstrated beyond doubt that the claims these additives transform polyolefin plastics into biodegradable plastics are unfounded. It is scientifically well-known that all polyolefin plastics are naturally prone to oxidation under environmental conditions. Such oxidation ultimately leads to fragmentation and formation of microplastics, which build up in oceans and in soil.”
The coalition, comprising the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA), the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA), the ESA, the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA), Greenpeace, A Plastic Planet, REA and Recoup, claims that in accelerating the conversion of macroplastics into microplastics, oxo-additives do not solve the problem of plastic pollution – but worsen it.
We hope this clears up the confusion over why eco-friendly sugar packaging is nearly, but not quite, here. If you know of any other claims of ‘biodegradable’ food-grade paper that can be mass-produced and could apply to flexographic printing, then we would love to hear from you.
For any other sugar packaging enquires, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone on 0845 2300 134.