November 25, 2019

Compostable, Biodegradable, or Recyclable Packaging Materials?


How they differ and why their distinctions are so important for a sustainable world

Compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable packaging materials? The environmental movement has a simple purpose: to improve and protect the health and quality of our planet and its resources. The general public understands on a fundamental level the dangers of pollution and the importance of a clean Earth. However, implementing these concepts on a commercial scale and instituting sustainable business practices are significantly more complicated.

There is not always one clear path forward for businesses to improve their environmental footprint, especially in the packaging world. Instead, multiple terminologies have arisen to describe eco-friendly packaging materials, each with distinct scientific properties which impact society.


Biodegradable vs compostable packaging

As the sustainability movement entered the packaging industry, the terms “biodegradable” and “compostable” grew in popularity to describe nature-based and eco-friendly packaging materials. Although similar and often used interchangeably, they differ in critical ways that have real-life implications when it comes to their sustainable disposal.

Plants and animals naturally biodegrade, decomposing in the environment and leaving behind their organic carbon matter to become nutrients for soil. ‘Biodegradable’ therefore describes this general scientific process. Composting, on the other hand, is the human-driven process where a product degrades in a specific set of conditions, like in a compost bin or at an industrial facility.

Compost Landfill

Trying to replicate nature

Companies use the terms biodegradable and compostable to emphasize how other plastic packaging solutions last for centuries in landfills. They utilize phrases like biodegradable or nature-based to relate these items to the earth, advertising directly to consumers looking for sustainable, organic products. Bioplastics, for example, represent a new packaging technology that uses organic resources, like corn starch, to produce packaging material. Solutions like some molded pulp and polylactic acid (PLA) products utilize organic biomass to produce packaging material.

Companies boast that these new materials are biodegradable and compostable and therefore eco-friendly. However, there are a number of caveats that prevent biodegradable and/or compostable products from being better solutions. The reality of their disposal is more complex and, on top of that, scientists have found serious environmental dangers associated with these biobased solutions.


The pitfalls of biodegradable packaging

The science behind biodegradable plastics is more complicated than the mental image of a tree decomposing in a forest. Truly biodegradable substances decay completely into naturally-occurring minerals, leaving behind no additive chemicals in the environment. However, packaging products labeled as biodegradable often take many years to break down and only under specific conditions. Although they attempt to replicate natural processes, man-made packaging often leave behind dangerous toxins in the soil, which end up causing more harm than good for the environment. Just because something degrades doesn’t automatically mean it’s beneficial for the Earth.

An article by Ecology Center explains that “the prefix ‘bio’ can be very misleading.” In reality, bioplastics are still “made from the same materials as conventional petroleum based plastics, but with even more chemicals.” These additives may allow packaging materials to break down quicker in a landfill, but they also make them “generally not accepted for recycling” with a problematic #7 recycling code.

Biodegradable packaging represents a theoretical solution that fails in practical application. Bioplastics often “are impossible to recover for recycling and aren’t suitable for composting” because they break apart into smaller pieces instead of fully breaking down into natural compounds. While they seem more natural and therefore eco-friendly, they pollute soils, waterways, oceans and still present a threat to animals.


The reality of compostable packaging

Compostable packaging products have become popular, as brands attempt to attract sustainably-driven customers. Unfortunately, compostable products have caveats that make them much less sustainable in reality than recyclable packaging. For example, organic matter like food scraps and weeds from your garden can be easily thrown in a bin and composted in your backyard. In contrast, compostable packaging products cannot degrade on their own, but almost always require large industrial composting facilities where they are incinerated at 140 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 straight days.

PLA products, or polylactic acid, represent a popular biodegradable and compostable packaging material. PLA-based packaging only breaks down in commercial composting facilities and may never degrade in a backyard compost. These products even advise customers against composting in their yards, as they are specifically designed for industrial composting, making disposal even more difficult. In fact, even “some commercial composters…have to remove bioplastics like compostable utensils because even their temperatures and humidity levels will not break down these products.” 



The real heart of the problem though, is that compostable packaging is non-recyclable. The very chemicals designed to improve their sustainability prove their downfall, as the additives make them virtually unrecyclable. The whole goal of compostable plastics is to reduce their durability over time by facilitating their degradation. But unfortunately, this prevents recycling facilities from being able to recover and repurpose their materials. 

Compostable plastic bottles

To make matters worse, compostable materials complicate the recycling process, confusing consumers, and causing recyclable products to end up in landfills. Recycling centers are constantly forced to separate recyclable plastic and paper from compostable products. As a result, recycling facilities regularly have to discard entire loads of recyclable materials due to the presence of compostable packaging. 


Recycling is still the answer

While sustainable innovations provide optimism for an eco-friendly future, it is important to understand how the disposal systems operate to understand a material’s true environmental impact. Biodegradable and compostable packaging products claim to be better for the planet because they break down quicker. However, recyclable packaging still achieves a much lower environmental impact in reality because of the success of the systems currently in place.

According to the EPA, the United States recycles 67.2 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) a year, which is over 2.5 times more than the U.S. composts. In 2017, the U.S. composted 27 million tons, but 90% of that were yard trimmings and the rest was food waste. 

Graph of Waste Disposal in U.S.

Designed for reuse and recycling

EPE USA designs packaging solutions with a clear understanding of a product’s life cycle and the disposal process of its materials. With this in mind, we utilize 100% curbside recyclable packaging materials, making it easy for customers and ensuring maximum recycling efficiency. EPE also implements packaging solutions with materials capable of handling multiple transits to allow an opportunity for the recovery and reuse of materials.

Our award-winning Reusable Structural Transit Insert’s (RSTI’s) exemplifies an optimized sustainable packaging design, with emphasis placed on reuse and recycling. We achieve optimal sustainability by focusing on reducing the amount of material used, reusing materials, and ensuring solutions are 100% recyclable. These strategies prove to be the most sustainable, working in tandem with the systems in place all over the world that keep our planet clean.

Talk to one of our packaging professionals today about our reusable and recyclable solutions.





Photo from The Press Democrat