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What’s the difference between biodegradable and compostable packaging?

6 February 2024By ellie Reuseabox

What’s the difference between biodegradable and compostable packaging?

The terms biodegradable and compostable packaging are often used interchangeably but they do not mean the same thing. It’s important to understand the difference so you can select the most appropriate type of packaging for your products.

 

Biodegradable vs compostable packaging

Biodegradable Vs Compostable Packaging

Biodegradable products are those that can be broken down by living microorganisms like fungi or bacteria. This helps them to break down but, crucially, it does not necessarily mean they will break down completely and some residue may be left. This process can take decades to happen.

Compostable products are those that can disintegrate into their natural parts (water, carbon dioxide and biomass). These products require microorganisms, humidity, and heat to break down. In the right conditions, these products will break down within 90-180 days. The word ‘compostable’ might make us think of Cardboard Boxes in home composting bins. But it is now increasingly being used to create types of plastics with a lower environmental footprint.

 

Types of Compostable Packaging

The following types of plastic packaging are well suited to being made compostable as they are often difficult to dispose of in other ways such as recycling.

  • Fruit and veg stickers where the skin is unlikely to be eaten.
  • Food caddy liners and other bags designed to carry food.
  • Tea bags
  • Coffee pods
  • Ready meal trays that are likely to be contaminated with food.

 

Check the Product’s Certifications

When it comes to being classed as compostable, it is important to ensure the packaging meets the required standards and certifications. That’s why it needs to be:

  • Certified BS EN13432 or meet requirements of an appropriate home composting specification.
  • Be widely collected and sent to the appropriate organic waste treatment sites for processing or be suitable for home composting.

The not for profit organisation WRAP has published a set of guidelines to help businesses make informed choices when considering the use of compostable packaging.

 

Beware of Greenwashing

It’s important to remember that whilst all compostable types of packaging are biodegradable, not all biodegradable packaging is compostable. This is significant because it means biodegradable packaging may exist in the environment for many years before it breaks down and cause considerable environmental damage. This makes compostable packaging far better for the environment. When considering types of packaging, do not be drawn in by terms such as ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’. Instead look for specific standards or certifications.

The word compostable can be confusing for consumers. Care must be taken to ensure packaging is properly labelled to ensure it does not end up in the environment or in the incorrect processing facility.

 

Summary

The term ‘biodegradable’ is unregulated and therefore may not be as good for the environment as it appears. Compostable packaging undergoes strict testing to ensure it breaks down within a specific time frame and does not release anything harmful into the environment. It can also be certified but care must be taken to ensure consumers dispose of it appropriately.

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