Biodegradable vs compostable packaging

We all know we must change our habits and live more sustainably if we are going to save the planet. It can be difficult to tick all the right boxes, however, especially when it comes to making choices during our weekly shop.

Packaging can be confusing.

If you don’t understand the difference between biodegradable, compostable and degradable packaging, you’re not alone.

A subject we get asked a lot about here at 10K60 is the difference between these terms, how they affect the environment and which of these are best option to help save the planet.

Here we try to clear up some of that confusion and how we can take eco-friendly packaging to the next level.

What’s the difference between biodegradable, compostable, and degradable?

The vast majority of packaging is degradable, even the single-use plastics which are now clogging up our waterways and oceans. The trouble is that much of this takes tens if not hundreds of years to properly break down.

When it does, it normally creates small, micro-pieces of waste that can still hugely impact the environment and wildlife for many years to come.

Biodegradable packaging, on the other hand, breaks down into natural components such as carbon dioxide, water and organic compounds, through the action of fungi and bacteria. They also do this much quicker than traditional packaging.

Compostable packaging breaks down even quicker but they can only do this is they are placed in a compost heap. Some packaging, however, needs to be handled commercially in order to break down properly. One thing to remember though, compostable items must be composted and not just put in your standard kerbside rubbish bins. As we said previously, these items need warmth, air and moisture to compost… something that landfills are lacking in!

This all seems simple on the surface but not all biodegradable and compostable products are made equal.

What are the challenges?

Let’s take corn-based plastic. Yes, it is designed to break down quicker than oil-based plastics but this depends on how it is disposed of.

Corn-based plastic needs to be handled by commercial composting – they won’t break down in your standard garden heap. That’s because these products need a higher level of heat and careful control of environmental factors such as humidity.

If your corn-based plastic bottle ends up in landfill, it won’t simply degrade as you might expect because the right conditions aren’t present. It could be around for as long, if not longer, than a standard plastic bottle.

Paper bottles, cartons and straws are also complex issues. Yes, the paper is recyclable but many of these bottles have additional layers of plastic and foil that make them more difficult to process. Few recycling plants can currently handle this kind of waste and treat it effectively.

The whole issue of biodegradability is, unfortunately, extremely complicated and it is still developing. New oxo-degradable plastics were thought to be a good addition to the packaging choices for business until we discovered that, as they break down, they can be toxic to the environment. Biodegradable plastic bags hang around in the eco-system for more than three years, causing harm to wildlife not just locally but around the globe.

What’s next for sustainable packaging?

While there have been improvements made over the last ten years, we are still far from a sustainable packaging solution.

Consumers can make a difference by choosing products that use eco-friendly packaging but this is often confusing and difficult to understand. Manufacturers are moving towards more sustainable practices but this is undeniably too slow and not as effective as many people like to think.

Brands and retailers need to understand the differences between each category in order to accurately and honestly market their products. And consumers need to understand eco-terminology in order to make informed buying decisions and correctly dispose of packaging at the end of use.

What’s true is there is no one-size-fits-all solution. For brands and retailers, of course, there needs to be a balance between costs and choosing the appropriate packaging solution. The confusing array of different solutions on the market today make that more difficult which is why many businesses approach consultancies to help them develop a clear strategy for the future.

While huge investment is currently going into biodegradable packaging, the industry at a global level is extremely fragmented and new technologies are still being developed. This is the major challenge for us all. While we’re working hard to solve these problems, however, the clock is ticking.

For the time being, many companies are trying to make the best decisions they can without having all the tools and information they need at hand. In general, brands and consumers want to do the right thing but need guidance to do so. There will come a future when all packaging is sustainable and safer for the planet but there is still a considerable way to go.