Biodegradable Packaging

Australians go through 1.2 million tonnes of plastic a year, of which less than 14% is recycled. Australian scientists have developed a revolutionary, cost-effective packaging material from wheat starch that is fully biodegradable within 4 to 6 weeks.

Australia uses over 6.5 billion shopping bags a year, which amounts up to 325 bags per person per year. Of those 325, less than 9 actually get recycled. Biodegradable packaging materials have been around for some time but the difficulty in development has always been cost, with some biodegradable materials costing ten times as much as conventional packaging.

This exciting new wheat starch-based biodegradable material can be used for shopping bags, to pack vegetables, as baking trays and even as a mulch sheeting for farming and gardening. It is an opaque material which looks like a normal sheet of plastic and is said to biodegrade within 4 to 6 weeks. The polymer structure of the material is broken down by microorganisms in the environment and does not?rely on UV light to break down and degrade.

However, a critical part in the development of biodegradable packaging?is to ensure there are no toxic effects on the environment. In this case, two tests were completed: a germination test with a variety of different types of plants to check that they can still germinate in the soil, and a worm toxicity test, as worms are very sensitive to anything toxic in the environment. The new material passed both tests. The packaging technology was developed jointly by the CRC for Food and Packaging, Swinburne University, CSIRO and the University of Queensland. In 2000, it was being commercialised, and was hoped to be available to consumers within a year. It has been estimated that this material could replace around 60,000 tonnes of plastic packaging that ends up in landfills each year.