Compostable: breaking it down
Compostable packaging, it's the new hype! However, it's not all that clear what having compostable packaging actually means. How does it compare to simply 'biodegradable' packaging? Is there only one type of compostable packaging? What is it made of? Is it the answer to all of our packaging sustainability woes? Let's find out!
What does compostable mean?
It means the product is made of organic matter and can completely break down to make nutrient rich compost. However, different kinds of compostable materials require different conditions to actually break down. Home compostable materials will break down in a compost heap in your garden with your food waste. However, most compostable packaging is only industrially compostable, requiring an industrial composting facility to break down. This is because these materials require temperatures of 55 degrees Celsius or above in order to do so - temperatures impossible to achieve in our own home composts.
These processes result in compost which can then be sold to farmers, companies, or even, individuals.
In the UK, the most common certifications for industrial composting are:
- OK Compost from TUV Austria;
- The seedling logo licensed by European Bioplastics; and
- The DIN Gepruft from Din Certco.
Isn't compostable just a fancy word for biodegradable?
No. The main difference between compostable and biodegradable goods is that compostable goods need a specific temperature to breakdown, whereas biodegradable goods break down naturally. That would make it seem like biodegradable materials are better than compostable but that's not true. For instance, plastic is biodegradable, degrading over hundreds of years into micro-plastics.
Okay, so compostable materials are better than plastic... right?
In theory, compostable packaging (even if it requires a composting facility) seems like a pretty great alternative to plastic. However... in practice, the issue is more complex. Commercial composting facilities are really rare, with only 170 industrial facilities in the UK - which is not enough to compost the quantity of packaging produced. Plus, there are no official containers that collect compostable packaging separately so it's difficult to even get them to the sites.
On top of that, some compostable packaging is not accepted by facilities as they are seen as contamination risks. For instance, PLA is a type of bioplastic which is NOT accepted because it takes too long to degrade due to its thickness. Most compostable plastics are not accepted because it's difficult to tell if these are compostable or virgin plastic so the risk of contamination is very high. However, compostable plastic bags are very thin and are typically accepted by composting sites. Is this also confusing you??
Home compostable packaging is pretty great though. A wherefrom fave is Halo Coffee's home compostable coffee capsules which decompose in a matter of weeks in our own compost heaps and in around two years if it were to end up in landfill - the same amount of time it would take a banana.
What are compostable materials usually made from?
They can be made from a variety of corn, potato, and tapioca starches, cellulose, bamboo, soy protein, sugar cane (bagasse), lactic acid and other natural materials. It's important for all companies to be transparent about how their materials were sourced and to ensure that they do not contribute to deforestation, soil erosion, toxic runoff, eutrophication, loss of biodiversity, poor labour rights, low wages and other consequences that result from most intensive and mono-cropping agriculture. For instance, sugarcane is often associated with extremely low wages and has a really large water footprint.
All in all, compostable packaging does not seem like the panacea to our packaging problems. It's best to try and reduce our packaging use whenever possible and to opt for recyclable packaging as recycling waste streams and facilities are much better established.