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Compostable & biodegradable packaging: what's the difference?

While all biodegradable packaging is also compostable, not all compostable packaging is biodegradable. There is more to it, but the key point is that, despite some overlap, they are not the same.

Unfortunately, the terms compostable and biodegradable packaging is frequently used synonymously, which poses a double risk to businesses. Without understanding what each represents, firms could give customers false information. This might contaminate waste streams and result in additional packaging being disposed of in landfills. Additionally, it's difficult to understand your true impact on the environment without understanding the differences, which makes it difficult to improve.

Here is a brief explanation of what it all implies.

What does biodegradable mean?

When subjected to appropriate conditions, a biodegradable material will totally decompose into natural components (light, moisture, air). To break down the substance, fungi and other microbes require the right circumstances. It's a challenging term because almost everything, from veggies to plastic bags, matches this criterion given enough time.

There are certain criteria, but no commonly accepted certifications, and there is no set amount of time in which material must degrade. These helpful recommendations for when and how to use the phrase are provided by the Federal Trade Commission, although businesses are free to deviate from them. The three key principles from the recommendations are as follows:

What does that mean for packaging?

Because different suppliers may use the phrase differently, it can be difficult to understand what vendors mean when they claim that their packaging is biodegradable. Working with reliable vendors and using tools like the aforementioned guidelines can help you make wise judgments.

The good news is that packaging must be mostly comprised of natural materials like wood pulp or potato starch in order to be fairly labelled as biodegradable (see FTC rules). These components enable the packaging to degrade within the FTC-imposed one-year time limit, and the faster your packaging degrades, the better it is for the environment.

Less finite resources are used since biodegradable packaging makes use of these organic, replenishable components as opposed to just relying on fossil fuels. Therefore, compared to conventional packaging, biodegradable packaging has a lower carbon footprint. So, biodegradable packaging is one strategy if you're a firm looking to improve your packaging and achieve sustainability goals.

How do I tell my customers to dispose of biodegradable packaging?

The disposal of biodegradable packaging is frequently done wrong. It won't degrade in any environment, despite some people believing that something is biodegradable means it will. Some individuals believe that something being biodegradable entails that it is recyclable; however, unless the material is made of paper, it is not. Some individuals mistakenly believe that biodegradable equates to compostable, which it does not. Some biodegradable packaging may be composted in some facilities, but this is uncommon, and packaging with merely a biodegradable label cannot be composted at home.

The correct strategy is for customers to recycle your packaging if it is paper-based and biodegradable. If it's not paper and biodegradable, it should be disposed of with regular trash. This does mean that a lot of biodegradable packaging ends up in landfills, but because there is currently no other option due to a lack of infrastructure, it is the only choice.

However, because of the materials used in its creation, biodegradable packaging still has a lower carbon impact than non-biodegradable packaging, even if it does wind up in a landfill. Although the result is not ideal, it is still preferable.

Okay, so what is compostable packaging?

A subcategory of biodegradable packaging is compostable packaging. It still degrades into natural elements, but under more rigorously controlled conditions. The most prevalent standard in Europe is EN13432, and to comply with it, packaging must decompose into the organic matter at a commercial composting facility. It must also complete this task in 180 days without leaving any hazards behind.

One reason compostable packaging is a more ecological choice is that it can only accomplish this by utilising a higher percentage of natural resources than biodegradable packaging. It's vital to note that the majority of these rules apply to packaging that is commercially biodegradable. If your packaging complies with EN13432, for instance, that does not necessarily indicate that consumers can compost it at home. Customers should be made aware of this distinction.

There are audited certifications available for home compostable packaging; the most well-known in Europe is TUV's OK Compost HOME. When sourcing packaging, keep an eye out for the certification shown below (they also have a certification based on EN13432 for industrial composting). Compostable packaging is a superior choice to biodegradable packaging due to these audited norms and certifications. They outline what is meant by compostable packaging and specify how long it must take for it to decompose. There is no misunderstanding, unlike with biodegradable packaging, which is comforting for your company.

How do I tell my customers to dispose of compostable packaging?

Infrastructure is required for the proper disposal of industrially compostable packaging, but sadly, most areas lack the necessary facilities or collection services at this time. Contained systems, like festivals or conferences, are an exception. Here, you can arrange for a collection by a composting firm after collecting the packaging on-site in designated bins.

However, the absence of infrastructure makes it challenging to compose this kind of compostable packaging for everything else. The temperature is too low in home compost, therefore it won't biodegrade there either.

There are two ways to inform your customers. Their packaging can be gathered and composted if the necessary facilities are available in their area. If it doesn't, it ought to be disposed of with regular trash. It won't have enough oxygen in a landfill to decompose into the organic matter; instead, it will decompose anaerobically. Both carbon dioxide and methane, which is 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide, will be released during this considerably slower process.

When it comes to packaging that can be composted at home, encourage your consumers to do so. The next best course of action, if they don't already have a compost pile, is to collaborate with neighbours who do or employ a neighbourhood composting programme. If not, it can be broken up and placed in the food trash bin. If none of these alternatives is accessible, the sole choice is landfill. Make sure your clients are aware that biodegradable packaging isn't designed to be recycled either because doing so will contaminate recycling bins and waste streams.

Therefore, home compostable is a preferable choice to industrial compostable unless you have direct control over collection and pickup. Simply put, composting is more likely to occur with it.

What are the takeaways?

Packaging that is biodegradable and compostable is not the same thing. Additionally, there are differences between packaging that can be composted at home and in industries, and those variances have noticeable effects.

Packaging that is compostable rather than biodegradable is the superior option. It is the most controlled, composts to generate healthy soil, and has the lowest carbon footprint. Although the word "biodegradable packaging" is prone to misunderstanding, it still has the potential to be an excellent choice.

Both require the proper infrastructure and users who properly dispose of them, though. To do this, people require the appropriate information, which necessitates firms' proper labelling, transparency, and disposal instructions.

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