Using Potatoes to package your magazine?

Whether you are a print supplier, publisher, magazine-reader or a purchaser of anything online, you are likely aware of the environmental issues surrounding the materials used to package your products. As we know, plastic is strong, flexible and durable, which makes it extremely useful for packaging and is the reason it is so widely used today. However, the damaging effects of our dependence on plastic have become increasingly clear, with its negative impacts being due to the fact it is non-degradable, meaning that after it is used it will exist somewhere in our environment for around 500 years. To put this into perspective, in our oceans there are approximately 51 trillion microscopic pieces of plastic, weighing 269,000 tons (and this doesn’t even include the big stuff!)

For years, this destructive material has been the default method of mailing magazines. However, increased public awareness and publicity of the damage single-use plastics are doing to the environment, caused by mediums such as Sir David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet”, mean this is changing.

One innovative example of efforts to combat plastic use is a very new and popular replacement for the plastic film on magazine mailings comprised of a compostable organic film made of starch derived from potatoes. This new material is both plastic-free and biodegradable. Its similarity to plastic is so strong that manufacturers have to advise on the packaging that you need to make sure to put the waste into your compost heap! The Guardian has implemented this packaging already, with the print editions of The Guardian and The Observer being delivered in potato starch packaging since January this year.

However, is using potatoes the right answer?

While it may help save the oceans, potato-based wrapping is considerably more expensive than polythene plastic covers and begins to degrade relatively quickly. As it is translucent, addressing becomes more of a challenge. As a result of using the biodegradable wrapping, the price of print editions of The Guardian and The Observer has increased. Whilst it could be argued that saving the environment should become a priority over expenditure on magazines, will all consumers have the same view? Or will the overall demand for print magazines decrease? If it does decrease, will this encourage The Guardian and other retailers to revert to their initial cheaper plastic packaging?

When considering the issue more closely, it is worth asking if potatoes are even all that great anyway? This plastic substitute made from fermented plant starch is also known as polyactic acid (PLA), which many countries and industries are adopting because of its ability to biodegrade much faster than toxic plastic, while still offering the same level of utility. However, although it’s great to hear that PLA does degrade, another source would say it does so… but very slowly. In a ‘controlled composting environment’ it may only take 3 months. Yet, if we send our potato packing to landfill with the rest of our waste, it can take anywhere from 100 to 1000 years to decompose, which can be longer than your normal plastic.

So now it may be hard to decide what the most ethical approach is that you could take going forward as a consumer, printer or supplier. One thing to consider is the difference between ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’. Biodegradable is a substance or object capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms, yet compostableis something that can be used as compost when it decays. Degradable items can break down but they can still be harmful to the environment, but compostable products turn into nutrient-rich compost that is always good for the environment.

Plastic bags will all eventually degrade into smaller pieces, but they will never entirely disappear. In contrast, potato starch is degradable and compostable as it is food matter. This means that potato starch in the sea could not be harmful to our marine life, nor will it be toxic to the soil it is buried in, even if it may take a while to fully degrade and disappear.

As a print management company, potato starch packaging is something will be looking to consider. What are your thoughts?