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Is Compostable Packaging Right for Your Brand?

As brands look for new and more sustainable ways to package their products, compostable packaging plays a growing role in the conversation. A 2020 survey by McKinsey found that consumers expect more compostable packaging to be introduced, but many of the finer points about compostability are still not well understood by packaging professionals, let alone the end user.

When a packaging department weighs its sustainability options, understanding some important details about compostable packaging can help them evaluate whether or not it’s a good fit for their product and their customers.

Compostable vs. Biodegradable

While both conjure the image of something breaking down until it disappears, compostable and biodegradable are not interchangeable words. Compostable materials break down under a specific set of conditions over a defined period of time. Those conditions include pressure, heat, moisture and other factors that expedite the degradation of the material. The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) and similar organizations around the world issue certifications for compostable products and packaging, and brands who want to market their products as compostable would be wise to pursue those certifications.

No such certifications exist for biodegradable packaging because the word is much more broadly defined. Given enough time and exposure to conditions such as sunlight and moisture, nearly any material can be considered biodegradable, including plastics, though they may take hundreds of years to break down. A supplier marketing their materials as biodegradable may be trying to pull a fast one, and packaging professionals would be wise to ask questions about how the supplier arrived at that designation.

Industrial Compostable vs. Home Compostable

Even within the realm of certified compostable materials, not all are created equal. Items considered home compostable, such as lawn clippings, tea bags and some food scraps, break down into nutrient rich soil over the course of a few months. For items considered industrial compostable, however, the conditions in a back-yard compost heap won’t cut it. They require tightly controlled conditions to break down in a similar amount of time.

A major concern with packaging that requires industrial composting is that widespread adoption is not supported by the current infrastructure. Most consumers don’t have access to industrial composting facilities, including many who live in major cities, so those materials frequently wind up in landfills despite their compostable designation. According to research conducted by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), 27% of the U.S. population has access a composting facility, while only 11% has access to a facility that accepts compostable packaging.

SPC’s study also found that several states, including California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island, have ordinances requiring businesses to compost their food waste. As more states and municipalities consider similar regulations, increased demand may soon drive growth in infrastructure and make compostable packaging a much more viable option for everyone.

Impact of EPR on Compostable Packaging

While Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations are relatively new to the U.S., they’ve been around for a while in Europe and may serve as a preview for what everyone can expect as the idea spreads globally. Companies like Vegware, which produces compostable packaging for the foodservice industry, aren’t waiting for the commercial infrastructure to catch up to demand – they’re collecting it themselves and partnering with waste haulers to transport it composting facilities.

As both EPR and compostable packaging gain traction, it will be interesting to see if suppliers follow the example set by these U.K. suppliers by taking the lead on ensuring the packaging they produce makes it to a composting facility instead of a landfill.

Environmental Benefits of Composting on Soil

Soil enriched through composting can act as an important carbon sink, meaning it absorbs and stores more carbon than it releases. While the current amount of soil produced through composting make only a small impact on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, increased use of composting may help mitigate environmental impact. Adding more fiber-based compostable packaging to the composting system can make the soil enriched by composting a year-round product, providing a valuable source of carbon during the winter months when sources such as yard waste are less plentiful.

Beware of “Greenwashing”

As consumers and watch dog groups grow more savvy about the environmental impact of packaging materials, it can be easy for brands to get caught greenwashing their marketing claims. “Greenwashing” is the act of making misleadingly positive claims about the sustainability of products, and the consequences to getting called out for this practice can range from a loss of consumer confidence in the brand to costly lawsuits for false advertising. Before touting compostability as a feature, brands should seek certification and think through the likely end-of-life scenarios for their packaging in order to avoid the appearance of greenwashing their products.

While the future looks bright for compostable packaging, current conditions don’t make it a viable option for brands in all industries. There are many factors, including availability of composting infrastructure and consumer preferences, that can help determine if it’s right for yours. The experts at Adept Group can help you evaluate opportunities for compostable packaging and many other sustainable packaging choices. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re ready to start conversation about your sustainability goals.

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Evaluating the Feasibility of Switching to Compostable Packaging

Awareness of compostable packaging has grown significantly in recent years. One of the driving factors of this growth is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy, which set a goal that all plastic packaging be 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. While many consumers are familiar with the reuse model, dating back to the days of the milk man, and recycling, with curbside recycling access continuing to grow, composting is a new concept that is not familiar to many people.

Understanding the Definition of Compostable Packaging

One of the main challenges with compostable packaging is developing a thorough understanding of the definition. To provide background on what is considered compostable packaging here is an excerpt from Compostable Packaging, A Greener Approach to Packaging Materials, An Adept Packaging White Paper.

Compostable packaging, or more specifically, compostable plastic, is defined by the ASTM (American Society for Testing & Materials) as “capable of undergoing biological decomposition in a compost site as part of an available program, such that the plastic is not visually distinguishable and breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, at a rate consistent with known compostable materials (e.g. cellulose) and leaves no toxic residue.”

According to World Centric, to be considered compostable plastic, there are three characteristics it must meet three conditions: 

  1. Biodegradable – in order for a material to be considered biodegradable, it must break down into carbon dioxide, water, biomass at the same rate as cellulose (paper).
  2. Disintegrable – the material is disintegrable if it is indistinguishable in compost; it must not be visible or needed to be screened out
  3. Free of Eco-toxicity – a material is considered free of eco-toxicity if the biodegradation does not produce any toxic material and the compost can support plant growth. 

Evaluation of Compostable Certification

Compostable packaging can be a great alternative for materials such as laminate plastic films, which do not have many end-of-life options today outside of landfill and incineration, but when assessing compostable packaging there are several factors that need to be considered, including:

  • The composting certification
  • On pack consumer communication
  • Supply chain of the package
  • Likelihood that it will make it to a composting facility

Compostable Certification Process

The certification process depends on several factors, including which country the package will be sold in and whether it is designed to be composted in an industrial facility or a home composting environment.

According to Compostable Packaging, A Greener Approach to Packaging Materials, in order to determine that a material is compostable, there are certain tests that the material must pass. Some institutions have defined either the standards or the methods to perform these tests, such as:

Commonly, to receive the assessment and certification, there are independent certification bodies that help with this process, such as:

  • DIN Certco (German Institute of Standardization, Germany)
  • AFOR (Association for Organics Recycling, UK)
  • Keurmerkinstituut (Certification Institute, Netherlands)
  • COBRO (Packaging Research Institute, Poland)
  • ABA (Australasian Bioplastics Association, Australia)
  • Vinçotte (Accredited Inspection and Certification Organization, Belgium)
  • Jätelaito-syhdistys (Solid Waste Association, Finland)
  • Certiquality/CIC (Composting and Biogas Association, Italy)
  • Avfall Norge (Waste Management and Recycling Association, Norway)
  • BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute, USA)
  • BNQ (Bureau de Normalisation du Québec, Canada)
  • JBPA (Japan BioPlastics Association, Japan)

Ensuring your package is engineered using certified compostable material and can still function to protect your product is one step in determining the feasibility of using compostable packaging.  

Consumer Communication for End of Life

Another challenge that companies face when implementing compostable packaging is lack the of consumer education surrounding it. Consumer communication is important when it comes to packaging, no matter what end-of-life scenario the package was designed for. If the package is disposed of incorrectly, it defeats the purpose of the intended design and provides no added value. Due to the fact that many consumers are unfamiliar with composting, it is best to provide as much information as possible.

 In the case of composting, completing the certification process will provide options of what graphic, instructions, and claims can be made on pack.

For example, the US BPI has a standardized logo that also aligns with the How 2 Compost labeling program from GreenBlue, the creators of How 2 Recycle. While in Europe, the TUV certification labels are widely recognized by consumers. Including resources that make it easy to find the nearest industrial composting facility or instructions for composting at home is also useful to promote correct end-of-life disposal.

Access to composting facilities

Not only does the consumer need to be aware of how to properly dispose of the package, but in the case of composting they also need to have access to an industrial composting facility that accepts packaging or have their own home composting setup. Not all industrial composting facilities are created equal; they range from accepting green waste, food waste, compostable packaging or all the above. GreenBlue has created an interactive map that highlights US composting facilities and the type(s) of material they accept.

Some companies utilize compostable packaging for products that have a defined supply chain, such as products being sold in sports stadiums where you can influence the collection systems put into place. The Green Sports Alliance is an organization that works in this space and promotes zero waste at facilities they partner with.

Determining your consumer’s access to these facilities or ability to influence collection systems determines the ability of your consumer to correctly dispose of the packaging. Without access to these facilities, a consumer doesn’t have the tools needed to compost the packaging.

Assessing if Compostable Packaging is Right for You

Considering compostable packaging can be a complex process to take on, given the need for certified material, education for consumers and access to composting facilities for end of life. By considering the factors noted here, companies can make a determination if the foundation is in place to take the next steps and what can and cannot be achieved by making the change to compostable packaging.

If you’re considering switching to compostable packaging or want to have a discussion about if compostable packaging is an option, our experts would be happy to help. Contact us.