Biodegradable vs. Compostable Packaging
In the world of sustainability, no two words are used interchangeably as much as “biodegradable” and “Compostable”. Although they are both positive aspects of a material’s ability to be broken down to its basic elements, there is a big difference between the two.
For packaging material to be “compostable”, it means that the packaging is capable of breaking down into natural elements in a compost environment. Because it’s broken down into its natural elements it causes no harm to the environment When composted, items should leave behind no discernible residue or toxins, and result in a nutritive soil additive. The breakdown process usually takes about 90 days.
By definition, “biodegradable” packaging is anything that undergoes degradation resulting from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae. The difference is: the term biodegradable makes no claims as to the amount of time needed for degradation, or the attributes of the end product. So essentially, a material can biodegrade, but take years to do so. Other materials can biodegrade, but leave behind high levels of toxins, contaminants and chemicals and are therefore not compostable.
Why the Difference Matters
To put it simply: compostable items are considered biodegradable, but not all biodegradable items are compostable. Even though a material is considered “biodegradable”, it’s not necessarily good for the environment – and that is a misconception that consumers need to be aware of. For instance, some packaging or containers might be made with compostable materials, but have a gloss or coating that is poly-based (think butcher paper, or those food containers with a waterproof lining). These items are not considered compostable, even though they are made with mainly organic materials. Some cotton bags are not 100% cotton – they are actually a blend of polyester and cotton. If something is not clearly made out of 100% organic materials, it should not be composted unless it is clearly labeled and certified as such.
Many food and beverage manufacturers use a biodegradable claim on biodegradable or compostable packaging, which becomes confusing. A better solution to appeal to eco-conscious consumers and maximize recycling revolves around using readily compostable material for packaging food.