There is a lot of confusion around compostable packaging, so much so that we think it deserves it’s own write-up. This piece aims to fill in some of the information gaps around organic material and compostables, to empower us to make more informed purchasing decisions.
What is Compostable Packaging Made From?
In short, compostable packaging is any packaging that is bio-based and at the end of its life breaks down into harmless organic matter.
The four most common materials which make compostable packaging are:
- Polylactic Acid (PLA) – made from the lactic acid produced through fermentation of corn or sugar cane. PLA has a wide variety of applications, these include bottles, gift cards and bags.
- Sugar-based Resin – derived from the starch of various vegetables and natural fillers. Note: these may contain some fossil fuel-derived materials too. Commonly used in compostable bags and films.
- Moulded Natural Fibres – can be made from sugarcane, bamboo and reeds. Moulded fibre products are becoming increasingly common replacements for plastic-based disposable tableware. They are pulped and moulded into shape and used as compostable food containers.
- Leaves – natural materials such as palm leaf or banana leaf can be made into plates and bowls.
Understanding the Terminology Around Compostable Packaging
As consumers, it is important that we understand the terminology around compostable packaging and organic material to help inform our purchasing decisions and avoid greenwashing.
- Bio-based – a product that is made from renewable, naturally occurring materials such as wheat, potato, cassava and sugar-cane.
- Biodegradable – a material is considered biodegradable if it breaks down at the end of its life in the presence of micro-organisms into water, carbon dioxide and biomass.
- Degradable – simply refers to how plastic breaks down into smaller pieces. These can include fossil-fuel-based plastics and are therefore not exclusive to bio-plastics. Subcategories of this term include: Oxodegradable- breaks down in the presence of oxygen, Photodegrdable – breaks down in the presence of light and Hydrodegradable – breaks down in the presence of water. The term degradable and its derivatives are often used as a marketing ploy and therefore a term to be avoided.
- Compostable – a material that breaks down completely into natural substances in a set period of time without leaving any trace of toxicity. This is defined as a biological process which results in carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass.
What Happens at the End of Life of Compostable Packaging?
Now we know about the types of compostable packaging out there and the terminology let’s look at what happens to compostable packaging at the end of its life. The golden rule when buying compostable packaging, bags or products is to make sure that the product is independently certified (just like our Obeo Food Waste Bags). Certified products or packaging are suitable for either home or industrial composting.
- Home composting – some bio-plastic and compostable packaging will be certified to break down in a home compost. This means that the packaging will break down in the presence of oxygen, moisture and micro-organisms in a standard garden compost.
- Industrial composting – materials that are certified to industrial composting standards will break down in a controlled environment with set levels of heat, moisture and oxygen. All compostable materials certified to a home composting standard will break down in an industrial composting facilities but not the other way round.
Commonly Asked Questions About Compostable Packaging
What’s happens if compostable packaging goes into landfill?
When compostable packaging or any organic material goes into landfill it breaks down anaerobically (without oxygen). This creates methane a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than C02. For this reason, it is very important that compostable coffee cups, bioplastic bags etc. are all composted rather than put into landfill.
What happens if bioplastics go into the recycling bin?
Bioplastics can look and feel just like regular plastic which is why it is very easy to accidentally put them into the recycling bin. Bioplastic is a big cause of contamination for plastic re-processors. Manufacturers can play a part in avoiding this confusion by ensuring that materials are well labelled. As consumers, we need to take time to familiarise ourselves with the products we buy and how to dispose of them correctly.
Is it littering if it is compostable?
Yes, yes and yes. As we mentioned above composting, although a natural process is controlled. Composting requires oxygen, moisture and micro-organisms. Compostable packaging or any organic materials don’t just disappear if they are thrown on the ground. That is why it’s vitally important to make sure that packaging and all other waste products go into the correct recycling stream. A recent study by the Marine Litter Institute in Plymouth showed that even after 3 years bioplastic bags had not broken down in the oceans and were as harmful to sea-life as petroleum-based plastic.
Things to Watch Out for When Buying Compostable Packaging
- A material may look compostable but unless it is certified it is very hard to tell for sure. That is why it’s important that the packaging is independently certified and carries a certification mark.
- Be wary of greenwashing terms such as natural, plant-based, degradable, and bio-based.
- If you are not sure what to do with packaging at the end of its life don’t be afraid to ask the manufacturer. The more we ask questions the more awareness it will bring to this issue of consumer confusion.
- Of course, the most environmentally friendly thing to do is avoid excess or unnecessary packaging altogether. Buying loose fruit and veg and avoiding disposable coffee cups are great ways to cut down on packaging.
Do you have any thoughts on compostable packaging and organic material? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
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