With the increasing awareness of our environmental impact, many people are looking for ways to reduce waste and recycle more materials. One material that often comes up in conversation is cellophane, with many asking whether or not it is possible to recycle cellophane. The answer may surprise you – while it’s true that we can recycle some types of cellophane, certain types cannot due to their chemical makeup.
This article will explore what makes cellophane recyclable or non-recyclable and how you can identify true cellophane from other natural materials to ensure your recycling efforts are effective.
Related: 20 Recycling Tips for Effective Recycling at Home
Cellophane and plastic wrap are two different materials. What we know as 'plastic cellophane' is not true cellophane but a type of plastic wrap. True cellophane has different properties and is made specially. True cellophane wrap may look like cellophane plastic, but it is made from a different material - wood.
Cellophane is a biodegradable, plant-based material made from cellulose obtained from dissolving pulp1. To make cellophane, the raw materials are first treated with a carbon disulfide chemical to make an orange solution called viscose or cellulose xanthate. This viscose solution is then extruded into a bath of dilute sulfuric acid and sodium sulfate to reconvert the viscose back into cellulose. After this process, the cellulose passes through several other baths to be further processed: one to remove sulfur, one to bleach the film, and one to add glycerin for coating.
The glycerin coating helps improve the transparency of cellophane without affecting its strength and flexibility and protects it from degradation due to moisture and light exposure. The cellophane produced after this process is finally wound onto rolls and packaged for commercial use.
Plastic wrap, on the other hand, is made from synthetic plastic polymers, usually polypropylene products. The process starts with heating plastic granules until they are melted into a liquid. This liquid is then pushed or extruded through a die to create tubes of stretchable plastic. Compressed air is then blown into the tubes to form bubbles that stretch the plastic film into desired thicknesses. After this, the bubble is collapsed between rollers, and the stretched film is rolled onto large metal rolls.
From here, it’s then unwound, cut, and re-rolled onto smaller rolls of suitably sized pieces for packaging purposes. To increase tensile strength and puncture resistance, the plastic wrap may also be treated with additives like stabilizers or softeners while still liquid. This help to make plastic wrap more resistant to tears and breakage once it's been applied as a structural component in plastics packaging applications.
Additionally, manufacturers also use specific dies to make patterns on the film's surface for added aesthetic appeal. Once produced, they can then store plastic wrap on large spools before being cut to size and distributed for commercial use by food service companies or other businesses requiring protective wrapping materials.
Related: 10 Best Plastic Wrap Alternatives To Keep Food Fresh Sustainably
True cellophane is made from wood pulp which means that cellophane is biodegradable but, unfortunately, not recyclable. Therefore, it should not be placed in the recycling bin; you can compost it in your home compost bin.
On the other hand, plastic cellophane is made from polypropylene or other synthetic plastic, making it recyclable but not biodegradable. This type of wrap should be placed in the recycle bin to be processed into new materials and kept out of our landfills and oceans. Unfortunately, too much plastic waste from plastic wraps still ends up in our environment due to improper disposal.
Related: Is Bubble Wrap Recyclable? - How to Dispose of Bubblewrap
True cellophane is a biodegradable material on its own. However, it may not be considered ‘compostable’ due to the added additives and coatings to create the end product. The manufacturer often makes cellophane by dipping it into carbon disulfide, adding zinc chloride, and coating it with moisture-proof layers. This means that most cellophane does not break down in the same way as compostable materials.
It’s important to note that just because the packaging is labeled as 'biodegradable' doesn't necessarily mean it's compostable. A biodegradable material will degrade over time when exposed to sunlight or soil microorganisms; however, compostable means that it will break down through biological processes and become nourishment for new plant life. This can take place in an industrial composting facility or even at home.
For cellophane to break down in the same way and provide nutrients for plants, it needs to be free from any plastic-based additives or coatings that would resist decomposition and potentially pollute the environment.
Therefore, although cellophane is a naturally biodegradable material on its own, it may not be labeled as ‘compostable’ due to its various additional treatments, which inhibit decomposition and make it unable to provide nutrients for new plant life.
When shopping for true cellophane, you should also look for a label certifying the product as compostable.
Identifying if a product is true cellophane or plastic wrap can be determined by reading the labels, looking at the physical appearance, feel, and characteristics, and testing with light and heat.
If you are still determining whether the product is real or plastic cellophane, one way to test is by examining its physical appearance. Plastic wrap usually has a glossy finish, while cellophane has a matte look and often appears more translucent. Cellophane also feels thicker and slightly harder than plastic wrap when touched.
To further verify, you can attempt to fold the material into creases using your fingers; plastic will not retain its fold, while cellophane will maintain it.
Next, try burning a small section of both types of materials with a match or lighter flame; if the material burns quickly like paper with no smell and leaves behind a black residue like burnt paper, then this indicates that it is true cellophane rather than plastic wrap.
You may also need to conduct a heat-sealed test, which involves sealing two ends together via an iron or heat sealer machine; if they get heat-sealed easily without melting each other's surface, then this indicates that they are indeed true cellophane bags rather than plastic wraps.
By determining these features correctly, you will be able to know whether your product contains wood pulp or not—which would make it eco-friendly—and therefore distinguish between true cellophane versus plastic wrapping materials appropriately.
The general opinion is that real, uncoated cellophane will take 10 - 30 days to decompose in a compost pile.
When cellophane has been coated with nitrocellulose, it takes much longer to decompose than uncoated cellophane. This is because nitrocellulose acts as a barrier between the cellophane and its environment and prevents the material from being broken down by bacteria or fungi. As a result, this type of packaging can take 2-3 months or more to decompose. So while coated cellophane is still a sustainable alternative to plastic wraps, it is not the most environmentally-friendly option.
The longer it takes for packaged materials to decompose, the more waste accumulates in our environment. Therefore, it is important to use compostable cellophane whenever possible and dispose of them properly when finished with them.
Compostable cellophane bags, wraps, etc., break down quickly in compost bins due to the increased presence of microorganisms compared to an outdoor setting. This process, called biodegradation, helps reduce land and air pollution, benefiting both human health and the environment.
Using compostable materials instead of those containing nitrocellulose coatings like cellophane can help reduce environmental waste and promote sustainability for future generations. By disposing of these materials properly in composting facilities or bins at home or in public spaces, we can ensure that they break down quickly without causing any harm to our planet.
In conclusion, real cellophane is compostable but not recyclable, while plastic wraps may be recyclable in the recycling stream. However, choosing real, uncoated cellophane for your packaging needs is important. Cellophane is a natural, plant-based product made from cellulose obtained from wood pulp - a renewable source. It is a much more eco-friendly option than plastic wrap.
Since cellophane does not contain synthetic or petrochemical materials, it will naturally break down over time without polluting the environment. When looking for an eco-friendly cellophane and sustainable alternatives to plastic wrap for your packaging needs, always look for labels that certify the cellophane product as compostable. This way, you know that you are making a responsible choice and helping protect our planet's delicate ecosystems.
Laurence W. McKeen, 13 - Environmentally Friendly Polymers, Editor(s): Laurence W. McKeen, In Plastics Design Library, Permeability Properties of Plastics and Elastomers (Fourth Edition), William Andrew Publishing, 2017, Pages 305-323, ISBN 9780323508599
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.