Consumers are increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of plastic packaging, and are demanding that manufacturers and suppliers offer more sustainable alternatives.
An increasing number of states and local authorities are also taking action to prohibit single-use plastics such as polystyrene containers.
In response, cornstarch panels have emerged as a non-plastic alternative touted as a sustainable solution to packaging needs, including insulated packaging.
The issue is that recycling facilities and local municipalities are speaking out against their recyclability.
Cornstarch packaging is made through the fermentation process of the corn plant’s sugars and starch, which creates polylactic acid (PLA). This is then mixed with polymers made from alkene to create a product that can then be used to manufacture an array of packaging containers from trays and lids to bags, plates and foldable boxes.
Since cornstarch also provides reasonable thermal protection, it is increasingly being used as an insulated packaging material.
In the race to be green, many businesses have embraced cornstarch packaging and, in so doing, accepted many of its claimed environmental benefits without a great deal of scrutiny.
On closer inspection, however, cornstarch packaging is neither the most sustainable insulated packaging solution nor the best in terms of thermal performance.
Why cornstarch panels are not recyclable
The main contentious claim made by many manufacturers of cornstarch panels is that they are fully curbside recyclable.
This isn’t true.
Cornstarch panels have no recycling value. They cannot be reprocessed into another material that a recycling facility can then sell.
Cornstarch panels are frequently marketed, however, as curbside recyclable on the basis that they doesn’t interfere with the recycling process. Even this claim is dubious though.
The difficulties with composting cornstarch
As a biodegradable material, cornstarch packaging can be composted instead of recycled. However, this is another contentious claim cornstarch packaging manufacturers often make.
Technically, cornstarch packaging is compostable, but there are very few facilities that can compost cornstarch in large quantities.
This is because PLA requires very specific environmental conditions in order to break down. That’s to say, a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, a plentiful supply of microbes, and the right amount of moisture.
Even then, the resulting compost is highly acidic and must be mixed with an alkaline substance if it is to be used as a fertilizer.
As such, cornstarch packaging is not suitable for home composting nor do most consumers live close to a facility that can compost it industrially.
IPC’s alternative to cornstarch packaging: CelluLiner paper insulated packaging
So, if cornstarch panels are neither curbside recyclable nor easily compostable, where does this leave businesses and consumers looking for sustainable packaging alternatives?
For insulated packaging solutions, we suggest 100 percent paper-based materials as a superior alternative. The key benefit of using 100% paper insulated packaging is that your customers can conveniently recycle it curbside once received.
IPC’s CelluLiner insulated packaging is made using numerous layers of paper that contain thousands of small air pockets per cm3 to substantially slow heat transfer. It’s available in various forms to suit different packaging needs:
As well as outperforming cornstarch packaging when it comes to thermal efficiency, CelluLiner’s quality paper has exceptionally high recycling value so it can be easily disposed of when no longer required, without angering your local recycling facility.
Paper vs Cornstarch Panel Insulating Performance Comparison
IPC performed a performance test that compared the insulating performance of paper vs cornstarch panels. As can be seen in the graph below, paper panels outperformed cornstarch panels over a 48 hour period.
*All statements made in this article are based on real world recycling conditions where recyclers accept and transport waste from municipal waste collectors and MRFs.