Sourceful Blog

Compostable & biodegradable packaging: what's the difference?

Kris Moore · Jun 15th, 2021 · 9 min read

All compostable packaging is biodegradable, but not all biodegradable packaging is compostable. There is more to it, but that's the crux: they're not the same, even if there's some overlap.

Unfortunately, compostable and biodegradable packaging are often used interchangeably, and the risk of doing so for businesses is twofold. Without knowing what each means, businesses may pass on incorrect information to customers. That can lead to contaminating waste streams and sending more packaging to landfill. Also, without knowing the difference, it's hard to understand your true impact on the environment, and that makes it hard to improve.

Here's a straightforward guide to what it all means.

What does biodegradable mean?

A biodegradable material will completely break down into natural elements when exposed to certain conditions (light, moisture, air). Fungi and other microorganisms break the material down and they need those conditions to function. Almost everything, given enough time, fits this definition — everything from vegetables to plastic bags — which is why it's a difficult term.

There are some standards but no widely used certifications and no required timeframe a material must breakdown in. The Federal Trade Commission offers these helpful guidelines for how and when to use the term, but companies can, and do, bend them. Here are the three most important ideas from the guidelines:

When to fairly make a biodegradable claim, based on the FTC's guidelines.

What does that mean for packaging?

It means it's tricky to know what suppliers mean when they say their packaging is biodegradable as different suppliers may use the term differently. That's why it's important to work with reputable suppliers and use resources like the guidelines above so you can make informed decisions.

The good news is that packaging that's fairly labelled as biodegradable (it meets FTC guidelines) has to be made mostly from natural materials such as wood pulp or potato starch. It's these materials that allow the packaging to break down within the one-year timeframe set by the FTC, and the quicker your packaging breaks down the better it is for the planet.

Because biodegradable packaging uses these natural, renewable materials instead of only relying on fossil fuels, fewer finite resources are spent. And for that reason, biodegradable packaging has a smaller carbon footprint than normal packaging. So, if you're a business wanting to upgrade your packaging and meet sustainability targets, biodegradable packaging is one approach.

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

Biodegradable packaging is often incorrectly disposed of. Some people think biodegradable means it will degrade in any environment — it won't. Some people think biodegradable means it's recyclable — unless it's paper-based, it's not. Some people think biodegradable means it's compostable — generally, it's not. Some facilities may compost some biodegradable packaging, but they're uncommon, and packaging that only has a biodegradable label cannot be composted at home.

The right approach is this: if your packaging is biodegradable and paper, customers should recycle it. If it's biodegradable and not paper, they should put it with general waste. This does mean a lot of biodegradable packaging ends up in landfill, but without the infrastructure to do anything else, currently it's the only option.

That said, even if biodegradable packaging does end up in landfill, it still has a smaller carbon footprint than non-biodegradable packaging because of what it's made from. It's not a perfect outcome, but it is a better one.

Okay, so what is compostable packaging?

Compostable packaging is a subset of biodegradable packaging. It still biodegrades into natural elements but does so under stricter, regulated standards. In Europe, the most common is EN13432, and to meet this, packaging has to break down into organic matter in an industrial composting facility. It also has to do this within 180 days, and leave no toxic residue.

The only way compostable packaging can achieve this is to use a higher percentage of natural materials than biodegradable packaging — one reason why it's a more sustainable option. It's important to mention that most of these standards are for industrially compostable packaging. If your packaging meets EN13432, for example, it doesn't mean it can be composted at home, and you should make this difference clear to customers.

For home compostable packaging there are audited certifications, with the most widely recognised in Europe being TUV's OK Compost HOME. Look out for this certification, shown below, when you're sourcing packaging (they also have a certification based on EN13432 for industrial composting). It's these audited standards and certifications that make compostable packaging a better option than biodegradable packaging. They define what compostable packaging means, determine how it has to biodegrade and in what time. Unlike biodegradable packaging, there's no ambiguity and that's reassuring for your business.

TUV's certification labels: OK compost HOME and OK compost INDUSTRIAL

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

Disposing of industrially compostable packaging relies on infrastructure, and unfortunately, most places don't yet have the facilities or collection services needed. An exception to this is contained systems, such as festivals or conferences. Here, you can collect the packaging on-site in specific bins and then organise a pickup by a composting company.

For everything else, though, the lack of infrastructure makes this type of compostable packaging hard to compost. It also won't biodegrade in a home compost as the temperature is too low.

When you inform your customers, there are two options. If their area has the facilities required, their packaging can be collected and composted. If it doesn't, it should be put with general waste. In a landfill, it won't have the oxygen it needs to break down into organic matter, and will instead break down anaerobically. This is a much slower process, and it will release both carbon dioxide and methane, which is 34 times more potent than CO2.

As for home compostable packaging, your customers should put it in a well-managed home compost. If they don't have a compost pile, the next best option is to partner with neighbours who do or use a local composting scheme. If there isn't one, it can be put in the food waste bin in small pieces. And if none of these options is available, landfill is the only option. Make sure your customers know that compostable packaging isn't made to be recycled either, as putting it in the recycling bin will contaminate waste streams.

So, unless you can control collection and pickup yourself, home compostable is a better option than industrially compostable. It's simply more likely to end up as compost.

What are the takeaways?

Compostable and biodegradable packaging are not the same. What's more, home compostable and industrially compostable packaging are not the same, and the differences have real consequences.

Between compostable and biodegradable packaging, compostable is the better choice. It has the lowest carbon footprint, helps build healthy soil as compost and is the most regulated. Biodegradable packaging still has the potential to be a good option, but as a term it's open to misuse.

What both need, however, is the right infrastructure and for consumers to dispose of them correctly. To do so, they need the right information, and that means businesses have to be transparent, label correctly and provide clear disposal instructions.