Biodegradable, Compostable, Disposable or Eco friendly utensil bowl and cup on yellow background, Sustainable concept

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.

Containers with different types of garbage near light wall. Recycling concept

How to Build Sustainability into Almost any Project

Sustainability has been an impossible topic for brands to avoid in recent years. In C-suites, production lines, packaging departments and beyond, everyone has had to think about ways to decrease the environmental impact of the business. The good news is that by keeping a handful of concepts in mind, brands can build sustainability into almost any project their packaging team tackles.

The world produces around 300 million tons of plastic waste each year, and around 60% of the plastic produced since the 1950s either made its way to a landfill or ended up polluting the natural environment, including at least 8 million tons that go into the ocean every year. The bad news is that the need for more sustainable packaging is desperate; the good news is there is a wide margin for sustainable improvement in almost all packaging.

For organizations that aren’t swayed by the purely altruistic factors, there are plenty of other drivers pushing brands toward more sustainable packaging. Research shows that consumer demand for more sustainable products continues to grow. If a brand hasn’t responded to those changing consumer preferences, chances are its competitors have. Many of the biggest consumer brands in the world have publicly committed to aggressive sustainability goals, and dozens have partnered with organizations like the Ellen Macarthur Foundation to help them reach those goals.

State governments in the U.S. are considering Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws that shift the costs of handling packaging waste back onto the companies that produce it. Maine became the first U.S. state to pass EPR legislation, and Oregon may not be far behind. Those states are decades behind governments in Europe, where Germany adopted a form of EPR in 1991. These regulations are pushing sustainable packaging from something that’s nice to have to something brands can’t afford to ignore.

Combined, these drivers are pushing the packaging industry to accelerate sustainability programs, and while it may not be the only priority guiding packaging engineers, there are a handful of considerations that can help them build sustainable improvements into their other projects.

Design with the End in Mind

Any package design project should include a life cycle analysis that carefully considers the impact of a package at each stage of its life, including:

  • Resource extraction
  • Manufacturing
  • Distribution
  • Use
  • End of life

Each of these stages offers opportunities to improve sustainability, including reducing the thickness of corrugate and other materials to make manufacturing less wasteful and decrease fuel consumption during distribution and creating packaging that can be reused instead of thrown away after a single-use. End of life may be the stage where opportunities are easiest to identify, as recyclable and compostable materials remove packaging from the waste stream entirely. Thinking about the consumer’s experience with municipal recycling systems may lead to designing packaging from a single, recyclable material or a small number of recyclable materials that separate easily, both of which make responsible disposal an easy task for the end-user.

Use Recycled Materials

As the regulatory landscape that affects packaging waste continues to evolve, many brands will be forced to use recycled materials for their packaging. In the meantime, there are still plenty of environmental advantages to using recycled materials for packaging when compared to using virgin materials. From a consumer messaging perspective, manufacturing recycled plastics produces 65-70% less greenhouse gasses than manufacturing virgin plastic. Production of one ton of recycled plastic saves 5,774-kilowatt hours of energy, 16.3 barrels of oil, 98 million BTU’s of energy, and 30 cubic yards of landfill space when compared to virgin plastic

Purchasing recycled materials drives more demand for those materials, which makes them more profitable and incentives producers of recycled materials to scale up their operations, a long-term benefit for all brands.

Avoid Common Pitfalls

Suppliers are always going to leverage messaging that highlights the best attributes of the materials they sell, but it’s important to understand what they’re selling and what their claims really mean. Messaging around “biodegradable” materials, for example, can confuse both brands and consumers. Over a long enough period, just about all materials can be considered biodegradable; cynically, one can say plastic is biodegradable if you look at it over the course of hundreds of years.

Compostable” is a much more meaningful designation, as it signifies that the material biodegrades in a specific amount of time and under well-defined conditions. Doing the research upfront allows brands to have more meaningful conversations with their suppliers about sustainable materials.

Degradable additives are another easy trap packaging for packaging departments to fall into. Suppliers will tell you these additives help materials biodegrade, but this process breaks plastics down into microplastics that can remain in the environment longer. The EU has already banned some of these additives, and other regulatory bodies are likely to follow suit.

Use Less Plastic

Packaging is a growing driver of plastic production when compared to other uses for plastic, but it’s one of the easier areas in which we can decrease use. Despite the industry’s growing efforts, only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled. Benefits to reducing plastic packaging waste include lower greenhouse gas emissions, decreased use of non-renewable resources and less trash going to incinerators, landfills and the natural environment.

There are many ways to decrease the amount of plastic used in packaging, including decreasing the thickness of plastic packaging, designing plastic packaging to be reusable and using more sustainable alternatives.

Consulate A Sustainability Expert

Knowledge about technologies, materials, tools and regulations around sustainability is constantly evolving and it can be difficult to keep up with the latest information. An expert who focuses on sustainability can help demystify advances in the field. They’re also likely to have insight into what competitors and brands in other industries are doing to make progress against their sustainability goals and know what’s working and what isn’t. A true sustainability expert can provide a strategy tailored to meet a brand’s unique packaging needs and a set of clear, actionable steps to meet sustainability goals. Adept Group’s sustainability experts can help your brand conduct an audit and identify projects that will make the most meaningful impact toward your sustainability goals.

No matter where your brand is in its sustainability journey, Adept Group can help you accelerate progress toward your goals. If you’re looking for help building a strategy or advancing toward existing sustainability goals, get in touch. We can help.