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.