Is compostable packaging actually sustainable?

Compostable packaging is rising in popularity as more customers are demanding plastic-free options. Conscious consumers are aware that less than 9% of plastic has ever been recycled. Meanwhile, plastic waste is infiltrating every corner of our planet, ecosystems and food chain with disastrous consequences. 

But is compostable packaging really an improvement on plastic? Or is it yet another greenwashing step for businesses to look like they’re trying to be sustainable? Today we’re going to look at the types of compostable packaging, benefits and problems before figuring out whether it’s just another form of greenwashing. 

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The different types of compostable packaging

While the term is thrown around a lot, there are very different types of compostable packaging that come under the umbrella. 

Home Compostable Packaging

Compostable packaging has an organic origin such as sugar cane, bamboo or paper and not fossil fuels as most plastic does. Compostable materials must have a defined time in which they break down and can’t leave behind more than a tiny percentage of material. Home compostable packaging is a material that can break down in the temperatures generated in a home composting setup.  

Industrially Compostable Packaging

On the other hand, industrially compostable packaging (often called compostable) requires temperatures of more than 55°C. This is much higher than could be achieved at home. Industrially compostable packaging must be disposed of via commercial composting facilities or a specialist machine. The processing and higher temperatures of this method mean the material breaks down faster than home composting. 

Biodegradable and Bio-plastic Packaging

Biodegradable and compostable are often incorrectly interchanged. The terms mean completely different things. Bio-based plastics are either made from natural materials or a mixture of bio-based and fossil-fuel based materials. Biodegradable is a loose term that has no defined time period for materials to break down. It also doesn’t define the number of materials left behind at the end of the degradation process. Many bio-plastics have the same polymer structure as regular plastic and do not break down. Meanwhile, many biodegradable plastics do not fully biodegrade and can take decades to do so. 

Read next: Is glass sustainable? Why glass is BAD for the environment

The benefits of compostable packaging

  • Fully compostable packaging is plastic-free and will return to nature if properly composted. 
  • Compostables can offer similar properties to plastic packaging right now, giving businesses and manufacturers accessible options to ditch plastic
  • More people are beginning to home compost or use composting services due to the environmental benefits.  
  • Compostable packaging is made from organic material which means fewer fossil fuels are being used. Some clever brands are even making compostables from waste products, saving these materials from landfill. 

The problems with compostable packaging

  • Few people actually home compost. More bio-based plastics and even fully compostable plastics are ending up in landfill than actually being composted. 
  • Compostables don’t break down in landfill, despite many people thinking it does. Landfill does not provide the natural elements needed to compost which is why organic materials there degrade slowly and release methane gas. 
  • Most food waste and compost collection services refuse packaging, which can leave people without access to home composting sending it to landfill. 
  • Industrial composting is hard to find. Many councils and local governments don’t offer industrial composting collection services. This means compostable packing in these areas is likely ending up in landfill. 
  • Compostable packaging is linear. It’s designed to break down by its very nature. This continues the single-use culture that’s wasting important resources. In comparison, recycling gives items many more chances to be used.  

Is it just greenwashing?

I wouldn’t go as far as labelling all compostable packaging as greenwashing. However, in my opinion, it should be seen as a band-aid solution while working towards a circular packaging system. A lot of compostables are being sent to landfill where it doesn’t break down. And there’s yet to be wide-ranging research on what happens to compostable packaging and bioplastics if they’re dumped in natural environments. 

While paper and aluminium provide fantastic, light-weight, recyclable packaging solutions, they aren’t suitable for every packaging need. For example in my business CONCENTR8ED, most of my eco bars are perfectly fine being packaged in 100% recycled and recyclable paper. But this doesn’t work for the moisturiser eco bars, as the oil content of the bar leaks through the paper. The next best solution is compostable wax paper. But this isn’t recyclable because it’s a mixed material. This decision was about minimising the environmental footprint and keeping the cost lower for customers while remaining plastic-free.  

Read next: Which non-dairy milk is the most sustainable?

To sum it all up, compostable packaging has the potential to be sustainable – if made from waste products and is actually composted. It’s undeniably a better choice than virgin single-use plastic. However, it is not part of a circular economy. Compostables should be seen as a band-aid solution towards a better option, such as refills or fully recyclable, plastic-free packaging. 

Eco Action Step

My eco action step for you this week is to pretty please leave a review for my show on Apple podcasts or whichever app you’re listening on. It’s the number one thing you can do to support my show and help get these messages out to more people. If you’d like to, please send me a screenshot of your review via Instagram DM and I’d love to thank you in person. Thank you so very much for your support, eco friends!

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