Insights / Sustainability

Compostable Packaging: Enriching The Environment

Compostable packaging refers to packaging usually made from plant-based materials that will decompose into nutrient-rich organic matter, CO2, and water in a controlled environment in the home or commercial composting facility.

Some packaging materials such as polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), polybutylene succinate (PBS), and starch blends are biodegradable and may qualify as compostable.

To be certified as compostable packaging, the material and structure/product must be tested in accordance with established third-party standards (e.g., ASTM D6400 for industrially compostable packaging in North America and EN 13432 for home compostable packaging in Europe) to ensure they will completely degrade in the proper environment and within a specific time frame without releasing any toxic chemicals or materials (e.g., microplastics).

Why Compostable Packaging Matters

Compostable packaging diverts waste from ending up in landfills, produces compost that enriches the soil, increases carbon sequestration, and promotes cleaner recycling streams by preventing food contamination.

Some of the materials used for compostable packaging are derived from renewable resources, eliminating the use of fossil fuels. These materials also contribute less greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum-based resins.

Compostable vs. Biodegradable

Compostable and biodegradable are not interchangeable terms. While all compostable products are biodegradable, biodegradable products are not necessarily compostable.

The primary difference is that compostable products must meet strict testing requirements for decomposition specific environment, specific time frame, environmental toxicity, etc. Biodegradable products have no such requirements and may contribute to greenwashing.

Because the term biodegradable is not well-defined or legally recognized, some states, such as California, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, prohibit “biodegradable” marketing claims for plastic products and bags. Some biodegradable products do not meet composting standards and are contaminants for industrial composters. They also may contaminate mechanical recycling streams.

The Federal Trade Commission's Green Guides help brand owners avoid making environmental marketing claims about their products (including packaging) that may mislead consumers. The guides provide general principles and how to substantiate and qualify claims.

Another troubling issue is potential consumer confusion over the term biodegradable. Some consumers might believe that biodegradable packaging will disintegrate quickly in the environment, which may encourage littering and the possible release of harmful compounds and microplastics.

Incorporating additives into plastic products to make them biodegradable presents challenges. Degradable additives break down the plastic into fragments and microplastics that remain in the environment. They also may impair conventional recycling streams.

Compostable Packaging Applications

Compostable coffee capsules

Compostable packaging is best suited for food applications because food scraps and product residues left on the packaging are beneficial to composting. An added benefit is the avoidance of food waste in landfills, which produces methane a potent greenhouse gas.

Because of their organic composition, cannabis products are an emerging application for compostable packaging. Berlin Packaging distributes several compostable packaging containers for cannabis products, including pre-roll tubes, flower jars, lids, and caps.

Compostable Packaging Limitations

While industrial composting is growing in North America, only ~25% of U.S. households have access to municipal composting facilities. More than 90% of Canadian households have access to organic management programs, with 79% composting yard waste and 62% composting kitchen waste.

Compared to conventional plastic resins, compostable packaging materials are more expensive with limited supplies. At Berlin Packaging, we help our customers source, design, label, and certify compostable packaging. We take a holistic approach to responsible packaging, delivering solutions that optimize sustainability, performance, brand impact, cost, and material availability.

Explore related topics: Life-Cycle Assessment, Ocean-Bound Plastic, PCR Content, Container Deposit/Refund Programs, Refillable & Reusable Packaging, Mechanical and Advanced Recycling, and Bioplastic

Robert Swientek

By: Robert Swientek
Date: October 12, 2023

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