Biodegradable vs Compostable Packaging
Made from organic materials, biodegradable and compostable packaging can be broken down by microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi. Biodegradable items designed to breakdown in landfills are loosely defined as any material that takes over 180 days to disintegrate. Compostable materials break down in an average of less than three months under specific composting conditions which include nitrogen, carbon, high temperature and moisture.
Purchasing a takeaway coffee is not the straightforward transaction it used to be, with various eco-friendly cups presenting different options for waste disposal. While most customers are familiar with the standard recycling procedures, products labelled compostable or biodegradable present unchartered territory. This is due to a lack of public knowledge and infrastructure to support these cutting-edge products, as well as a number of variables that add a layer of complexity to the task. Unfortunately, most packaging does not include step-by-step disposal instructions, leaving consumers to educate themselves on the finer points of the processes. With an infinite array of biodegradable and compostable packaging on the market, eco-friendly waste disposal has become somewhat of a science.
The green-living-trend has taken the world by storm, impacting every industry from cleaning products to high-performance sports cars. Gone are the days when customers purchased products without concern for the environment (or packaging), and in recent years entire supply chains have been overhauled to reflect a greener brand. The widespread awareness of environmental crisis has seen major players, such as the food and agriculture industries, at the mercy of global scrutiny. According to a recent Forbes article “A full 70 per cent of the world population reportedly is either reducing meat consumption or leaving meat off the table altogether.” But plight-of-the Amazon and ‘year of the vegan’ aside, the majority of consumers are embarking on a greener path, with lifestyle choices that tick the traditional boxes of ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’.
Of course, ‘Reducing’ is the holy grail of green-living, but a zero-waste lifestyle and a diet of nude-foods are lofty goals, with most consumers opting to avoid single-use plastics as a more manageable starting point. In recent years this has led to radical changes within the food industry, most notably with the emergence of biodegradable and compostable packaging. However, these two terms are relatively new to the market – resulting in frequent misinterpretation and a number of urban myths. The fact that ‘biodegradable’ can technically be used to describe compostable options as well has only compounded the confusion. The truth is the term ‘biodegradable’ has been used for many years to describe the organic process of disintegration. Although both packaging categories are biodegradable, the terms are now used to differentiate between the timeframe of decomposition.
The Confusion of Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging
Authentic biodegradable and compostable packaging is made from organic materials and can be broken down by microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi. Biodegradable items are loosely defined as any material that takes over 180 days to disintegrate, while compostable products break down in an average of less than three months. There is, however, no definitive universal cap on this timeframe, and information surrounding the definition varies in timing from country to country. This grey shade of green has led to a number of products being labelled as ‘biodegradable’ when they will take an indefinite time period to fully decompose.
If it weren’t for overflowing landfills and dwindling marine-life, the abstract terminology wouldn’t really be an issue. However, when biodegradable (or compostable) ‘plastic’ bags find their way into the ocean, this causes sea-life to suffocate in the same way as with their plastic counterparts. In light of this, it is questionable as to whether a disintegration-period over six months should be commercially categorised as ‘biodegradable’, let alone eco-friendly. This example highlights the importance of using correct conditions for both compostable and biodegradable packaging, suitable to their unique compositions.
There are various methods used to assist in the biodegradable and compostable disposal processes, none of which, contrary to popular belief, involve traditional recycling methods. In fact, when organic packaging materials are included in the recycling process, entire batches of waste can be contaminated resulting in avoidable volumes being sent to the nearest landfill.
While a number of consumers are under the impression that these products magically disappear amidst the other waste, unfortunately, this is not the case. Biodegradable and compostable packaging does not decompose in compacted conditions that lack oxygen. Instead, when these products find their way into a landfill they end up producing methane (the harmful greenhouse gas) which causes more harm than good.
Pseudo-Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging
A number of companies have deliberately taken advantage of the unregulated eco-friendly terms, with some promoting ‘eco-friendly’ packaging that will ultimately take a century to fully biodegrade. Additionally, beyond the loosely defined timeframe of ‘biodegradable’, we enter into the shady world of green-washing. Green-washing is when an organisation labels a product in a way that sounds eco-friendly when in reality the packaging is composed of unnatural substances.
Terms such as ‘degradable’ or ‘oxo-degradable’ are the most commonly used with the intention of misleading pro-green customers. Degradable packaging can only be broken down with the addition of chemicals, and leave toxic traces behind that last for all eternity. These products are even more harmful than conventional plastic products, causing an imbalance in the ecosystem and damaging the environment permanently.
The Significance of Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging
Correctly disposed-of compostable and biodegradable packaging is the best choice for prolonging the existence of planet earth, providing an innovative and convenient solution to a modern throwaway culture. These products are far more sustainable than recycling, using fewer resources and offering an alternative to packaging that cannot be recycled.
Recycling is only a sustainable long term option for products made of aluminium and glass, as paper and plastic can only be recycled a finite number of times. More often than not after a certain number of cycles, this results in recycled paper and plastic ultimately ending up in the landfills. Inventions such as biodegradable landfill packaging offer a convenient solution to the waste-disposal, without a major change in lifestyle.
Whilst not all biodegradable (or compostable) packaging can be sustainably sent to the landfill, we are currently in the early stages of a global shift towards a greener way of life. It appears that in the future industrial composting and biodegrading facilities will replace traditional waste-disposal, solving the catastrophic landfill crisis once and for all. In the meantime, a major perk of composting is that it can be done at home, where it serves to support the growth of new plants. With various composting methods to choose from, it is even possible to source a compact indoor composting bag, suitable for small homes or apartment-living. Composting is easy to master, even when creating a home-based facility from scratch. Simply find a suitable spot, line the area with sticks, and then add layers of 60 per cent‘ brown waste’ to 40 per cent ‘green waste’ before topping the pile with soil from the garden.
Compostable Packaging and Processes:
Packaging labelled as ‘compostable’ falls into one of two categories: DIY compostable products or industrially/commercially compostable products. Within the home-based composting arena, there are several methods to choose from including worm bins, indoor composting bags, and of course the age-old heap-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden.
It is important to carefully check the labelling on packaging, as industrially compostable products will not decompose efficiently in DIY heaps, bins or bags. Commercial composting methods generally involve grinding and turning the compostables, while monitoring temperature and adding enzymes into speed up the process. Compostable packaging with a resemblance to plastic typically requires industrial conditions in order to successfully decompose.
Unfortunately, industrial composting facilities are (currently) few and far between, resulting in these products being shipped to over-crowded landfills. However, there are a number of waste-collection services that adhere to commercial composting requirements available in selected areas. You will need to find out from your local council whether these facilities are available, as well as whether to include packaging in the same place as your food scraps or not.
In terms of DIY-compostables, cardboard is the safest bet and can be disposed of through any home-based composting technique. This includes grease-stained pizza boxes, which are known to contaminate the recycling process and often go to waste. Bear in mind that cardboard or paper should be shredded, torn or cut in order to disintegrate rapidly.
Recycled paper and cardboard is often the basis of compostable packaging, due to the materials finite lifecycle. This type of packaging is similar in texture and appearance to cardboard, and should also be broken down before inclusion to your DIY compost technique. Innovative products such as paper-thin bamboo boats or cones can be added to home-composting facilities as well. Likewise, wooden toothpicks and skewers can be thrown into the mix, as can leaf plates or seaweed-based packaging.
Products made from Bagasse (sugar fibre) and other plant-based carbohydrates are also usually compostable, but it is best to check each product’s recommended disposal individually. At the end of the day, if the packaging is made from organic materials (and not too thick) you can typically add them to your DIY-composting method of choice.
Biodegradable Packaging and Processes:
With plastics taking an estimated four hundred years to disintegrate (although permanently leaving behind traces of toxic residues) this undeniably functional material has severe environmental consequences. Single-use plastics, most commonly found in packaging, have greatly contributed to the plastic islands found in the ocean.
Furthermore, plastic makes up approximately eighty per cent of waste found on beach cleanups, yet is notoriously difficult to sustainably eliminate. The burning of plastic is known to release harmful chemicals like carbon dioxide while recycling seven different varieties makes for an inconvenient solution. That being said, the unique composition of plastic requires an eco-friendly replacement that retains the functionality of the material.
Biodegradable packaging has presented a solution, with plastic-like products made from biopolymers (molecules found in plant-based sources) capable of natural decomposition. This groundbreaking discovery serves to preserve shelf-life of products, such as food, due to the water-resistant and breathable compositions. Mimicking the strength and flexibility of plastic, biodegradable packaging is an excellent choice for products that need to be stored over long periods of time.
Biodegradable ‘plastic’ has presented a solution for long-distance transportation, as well as for the short term preservation of products instead of plastic-based cling-film. However, at this stage, the majority of biodegradable packaging options require specific conditions in order to efficiently decompose.
Biodegradable disposal-facilities are equipped with UV lights and high temperatures designed to speed up the decomposition process. It is not possible to dispose of biodegradable packaging in a composting facility, and authentic products typically offer detailed guidelines that should be carefully adhered to.
Another thing to be aware of is the difference between bio-plastic and biodegradable plastic packaging, with bio-plastics not capable of the same decomposition. There are also a confusing number of plant-based products that are not compostable or biodegradable, and green-washing companies use the term ‘bio-plastic’ or ‘organic’ to create the false impression that the packaging is eco-friendly. For this reason, when purchasing (or disposing of) eco-friendly packaging, it’s a good idea to do a little research and find out the exact nature of the material you are dealing with.
The Bottom Line
Both biodegradable and compostable packaging options are able to decompose naturally and offer a potential solution to single-use plastics. However, these innovative products require specific conditions in order to efficiently break down. Unfortunately, the current lack of industrial compostable and biodegradable disposal-facilities means that certain eco-friendly products are limited in terms of correct disposal.
Due to the number of pseudo-green packaging products on the market, as well as the contradictory timeframes of decomposition, the term ‘biodegradable’ is best taken with a pinch of salt. If the item is described as biodegradable landfill packaging, it can simply be added to the trash with any non-recyclable waste. If not, you may have trouble sourcing one of the rare biodegradable disposal-facilities, meaning that it could get sent to the landfill, where it will produce greenhouse gas.
As the majority of biodegradable products do not state how long they will take to decompose, it is generally safer (and easier) to go for convenient compostable packaging such as cardboard or paper-like bamboo. It is easy to compost cardboard at home, with a worm bin, compost bag or traditional compost heap. Whatever you choose, it is a good idea to research the specific conditions required for sustainable disposable of the individual packaging options.