​What is the difference between recyclable, biodegradable and compostable packaging?

Posted by Mike Cunningham on Jan 23rd 2023

​What is the difference between recyclable, biodegradable and compostable packaging?

More customers and manufacturers are looking for sustainable packaging solutions, and terms such as recyclable, compostable and biodegradable are commonly used in reference to “green” packaging. But, although these three words are frequently used together, often interchangeably, they refer to different processes.

Recyclable: Recycling is the process of converting used materials into something new, keeping products away from a landfill. for longer. But there are limits to how many times some materials can be recycled. Standard plastics and paper, for example, can usually be recycled only a few times before they become unusable, whereas others, such as glass, metal, and aluminum, can be recycled endlessly.

Recycling papers is usually straightforward for customers, but when it comes to plastics, the matter is a bit more complicated. There are seven different types of plastic packaging, some commonly recycled, others almost never recyclable.

Retailers and manufacturers can help customers by including clearer recycling information on their packaging. Switching to reusable packaging solutions is another way to recycle and keep products in circulation for longer, for example, boxes or mailing bags that can be reused for exchanges and returns.

Biodegradable: When something is biodegradable, it means that it can be broken down naturally by microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi under certain conditions (temperature, humidity, etc.). The term itself is quite vague though, as it does not define the length of time needed for products to decompose.

A lot of products will break down naturally (therefore are technically biodegradable), but some may take many years to do so. Even natural products such as banana skin can take 2 years to biodegrade when thrown away.

Similarly, packaging products such as biodegradable plastic bags require specific conditions to break down properly and may produce harmful greenhouse emissions when left to decompose in a landfill.

As they break down, they turn into smaller pieces of plastics, which can take some time to dissolve. Therefore, although the process of decomposing happens naturally, it can still be harmful to the environment.

However, biodegradable plastics decompose much faster than their traditional counterparts which may take hundreds of years to break down. They seem, therefore, a more environmentally-friendly solution.

Compostable: Compostable products are made from natural materials such as starch and decompose fully into “compost” without producing toxic residue as they break down. To be classified as compostable, products must meet specific requirements.

Composting is a controlled process that usually happens in an industrial composting facility – compostable products are not suitable for home composting unless the product has been certified as Home Compostable. It is, therefore, important to check the label to make sure the product is properly disposed of.

Compostable and biodegradable plastics are not currently recyclable and can contaminate the recycling process if they are placed into a standard recycling bin. However, with the development of technology, work is underway to create compostable solutions that can also be recycled.

Bioplastics: There is also a fourth category – known as bio-plastics. They are made from marine or plant-based materials (such as corn and sugarcane) instead of petroleum and, therefore, are considered more environmentally-friendly.

This is because their production requires less usage of fossil fuels and generates fewer greenhouse gases than that of petroleum-based plastics.

However, despite what their name suggests, not all bioplastics are biodegradable. For example, a polylactic acid (PLA) bioplastic is biodegradable, whereas a polyethene terephthalate (PET) bioplastic is not. It is, however, recyclable… Unsurprisingly, this causes confusion and means that many bioplastics are not disposed of correctly.

The debate about which packaging (recyclable, biodegradable or compostable) is best for the environment is ongoing and there’s no single answer to this question. All of these solutions come with their own benefits and limitations but are a step forward in considering more sustainable alternatives to standard packaging.