The Guardian newspaper changes to biodegradable packaging

Potato fries* used to be wrapped in newspaper; now the Guardian is doing the opposite and wrapping its newspaper in a material made from potatoes. It is responding to customers who are concerned about waste plastic and its affect on our seas, by dropping persistent oil based plastic in favour of a biodegradable alternative. The weekend print edition will in future be wrapped in a plastic derived from potato starch. Readers in the south and east of England have welcomed the Guardian’s decision. It marks the beginning of plans to phase in the compostable packaging throughout the UK. The wrapper, which contains no genetically modified substances, is produced by Alfaplas.

The new wrapper must be home composted or disposed of with food waste, which is sent to an industrial composting facility. The material has received the composting seal of approval ‘OK Compost Home’ and has been designed to “completely compost within six months in a well-maintained compost heap.” It should not be put in the plastic waste bin intended for recycling. The Guardian is working in collaboration with Ecover, a pioneer in environmentally friendly household cleaners and packaging. Biodegradable packaging costs more than conventional plastic, so the Guardian, with its reputation for promoting the environment, should be applauded for making such an investment.

But what is the response of readers? Although the packaging is not entirely transparent like traditional plastic, it has a silky feel, which has been well received. Some readers are questioning whether local authorities would permit its disposal in the food waste bin, and if it would actually break down sufficiently quickly. Since biodegradability depends on environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity, it is right to consider how easily it will degrade. Similar concerns about another biodegradable plastic, PLA (polylactic acid), have led to restrictions on its acceptance into municipal composting facilities.  

The potato starch used by Alfaplas is extracted from discarded and waste potatoes that would not enter the food chain. Starch is present in commodities such as corn, wheat and rice and these get spoiled from time to time all over the world, and so an additional use for this material would be beneficial. But if the Guardian starts a trend, then demand may exceed the supply of waste material, leading to production of potatoes especially for biodegradable plastic. This can be a good thing, as there is plenty of spare land in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, which could provide additional income for rural communities. 

The important issue is that the potatoes and other crops used as raw materials should not be associated with destruction of forests, peat land or highly bio diverse areas. The only transparent way to verify this is by certifying the production as sustainable or originating from waste materials. The European Commission has approved sustainability schemes for this very purpose. So if companies want to make the right sort of headlines by using biodegradable plastics, they should ensure that the raw materials come from certified sustainable production. 

* Fried potato ‘chips’ from takeaway ‘chip shops’ used to be wrapped in newspaper until the mid 1980s.
Research by Grace Martin


Published: 28 January 19

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