Very often we have no choice but to buy food that is over-packaged.
Wrapped cucumbers and broccoli with no loose options for peppers and tomatoes. Double wrapped chocolate bars. Cellophane covered coconuts (crazy!).
They’re all common sights in supermarkets and add frustration when we’re trying to shop consciously.
Thankfully, we sometimes have an alternative. We can choose between regular packaging and compostable or biodegradable packaging.
But what’s the difference between compostable and biodegradable packaging?
Both are better for the environment than a lot of alternatives. But it’s not always clear which is best.
We’ve done some digging to help clear things up.
Why Do We Need All This Packaging in the First Place?
You can find excess packaging on everything from a cucumber to a flat screen television.
In some cases, packaging is desirable. The contents may be liquid or sterilised, or it may help extend its shelf life. In other cases, excess packaging seems to be little more than an advertising platform.
Every layer of packaging that lies between the product and the consumer is a layer that needs to be disposed of. The more waste we generate, the more land we need for landfills.
And what if those landfills are home to products that take decades to break down?
That leaves us requiring a home for the packaging far after the product was consumed. Some packaging has harmful chemicals that leach into the soil at the landfill and can put our water supply at risk.
Recyclable packaging could be a solution. But sometimes the amount of energy required for recycling may not be viable.
Even if a material is easy to recycle, it’s not guaranteed that it can be used in a new product. Not to mention that some local areas have limited or no recycling programmes easily available.
One solution is the use of compostable or biodegradable packaging.
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What’s the Difference Between Compostable and Biodegradable Packaging?
Compostable and biodegradable packaging look the same. But there are some subtle differences that are important to understand.
Especially when it comes to disposing of these products.
what is Compostable Packaging?
Compostable packaging breaks down in a home compost pile or a commercial composting facility. It forms decayed organic substances that can be used as a fertiliser, benefiting the soil.
This generally takes a few months, but how long the process takes and what conditions are required can differ. There are strict criteria used to certify packaging as compostable in the UK.
Compostable packaging requires composting conditions for it to impart benefits to the soil. If you don’t compost, the benefits of compostable packaging are largely lost.
You can get around this by putting compostable materials into your food waste bin. But always check with your local council, because some don’t allow compostable and food waste streams to mix.
If you want to be able to compost at home be sure to check the label or the manufacturers website to confirm it is home compostable. Tipa is a great example of home compostable packaging company.
what is Biodegradable Packaging?
Biodegradable packaging also breaks down over time. It will completely return to nature in a comparatively short amount of time. It doesn’t need special conditions, but it also doesn’t necessarily benefit the soil.
It’s how you plan to dispose of it, that makes the real difference. Biodegradable packaging makes no claim to benefit the soil. So there’s no reason to go to great lengths to do more than recycle as you usually do.
What Packaging Materials Are Biodegradable?
Most biodegradable food packaging will be labelled as such. But you might have to search on the label or the manufacturer’s website.
As a general rule, the following materials are biodegradable. (Remember, this means that it’ll break down and return to nature. It won’t necessarily benefit the soil as compostable materials do.)
- Paper, cardboard and brown kraft paper
- Packaging made from plant based materials such as corn, sugar starch, seaweed and mushrooms
- Some ‘bio plastics’ made from corn or sugar starch
Is Vegware Biodegradable?
Vegware is made from plant based materials and is often used to make eco friendly disposable cups, plates and cutlery.
It’s all completely compostable, meaning that it can go into an industrial composter along with food waste.
Which is Better, Compostable or Biodegradable Packaging?
Quite simply, there isn’t really a ‘better’ option. It depends largely on where you live and the recycling facilities you have access to.
On one hand, we have biodegradable packaging that breaks down quickly and isn’t intended to improve the soil.
On the other, we have compostable packaging that needs to be composted to break down and benefit the soil. Neither will hang around for hundreds of years in landfill or in the sea, which is already a good start!
Don’t be afraid to ask about the packaging on your favourite products – perhaps some of it could be avoided altogether.
Asking your favourite brands and supermarkets what they’re doing to reduce plastic waste is a good thing to do. You’re probably not the only one asking, and there’s power in numbers.
Brands and supermarkets want to do all they can to keep customers in the face of stiff competition. If you don’t get the answers you want, vote with your money and go elsewhere!
What to Do at Home
When it comes to shopping and disposing of the packaging there’s several things to bear in mind.
#1 Avoid Packaging where possible
Where possible avoid packaging in the first place.
Buying loose or unpackaged goods, or shopping at a bulk market, is the best option.
#2 Choose Compostable
If you’ve purchased something in compostable packaging, make sure to actually compose it.
Check if the packaging can be composted at home, or if it has to go to an industrial composter.
#3 Recycle biodegradable packaging
For biodegradable packaging it’s best to add to your recycling and let the council take care of it. You’ll get no benefit from adding it to your compost pile.
Sometimes this will mean it can’t be recycled and may end up going to landfill. Which is terribly sad and frustrating. But at least it’s highlighting the need for changes at recycling plants.
Hopefully managers will have the necessary conversations with the necessary people. When faced with increasing amounts of biodegradable packaging they can’t process they may soon have no choice.
Watch out for Greenwashing
Finally, it’s important not to get ‘greenwashed’ by recycling claims. Recyclable, biodegradable and compostable packaging all sound like more environmentally friendly options.
But be aware, not all claims apply to all situations, and sometimes it takes a bit of research to figure out.
Better options are out there. We need to do our research, dispose of them properly and avoid plastic packaging where possible. We know there’s change afoot, we all need to help it along!