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:
- 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).
- Disintegrable – the material is disintegrable if it is indistinguishable in compost; it must not be visible or needed to be screened out
- 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.