Breaking Down Compostable Packaging: Does It Deliver the Intended Result?
As a sustainable packaging company, we’ll be the first to tell you that we (humans) have a waste problem. News of overflowing landfills, polluted oceans, and overwhelmed recycling facilities are all stark reminders of this problem.
With the continued growth of online shopping (the market grew by 900 million people from 2021 to 2022 alone), it’s safe to say that the need for packaging isn’t going anywhere—except up.
These consumer trends fuel the need for new sustainable packaging solutions like compostable packaging, an organic, biodegradable product whose sales are projected to reach $28.8 billion USD by 2029.
It’s not hard to admit that there’s something that just feels good about a piece of packaging that says “This box is 100% compostable.” But what exactly does that mean? Is compostable packaging actually a viable solution to our waste problem, or does it do more greenwashing than good?
Compostable Packaging In Theory
In theory, compostable packaging sounds like a great solution. A box that will decompose and return to the soil as nourishment? If it’s really that simple, sign us up.
Like most things in the packaging world, it’s not that simple.
For compostable packaging to properly decompose, it must be handled in one of two very specific ways.
- Industrial Composting: The majority of compostable packaging must be handled by an industrial composting facility since the facilities generate higher temperatures than at-home composts and have larger compost heaps with more diverse microorganisms to promote decomposition.
- Home Composting: Only very specific types of compostable packaging can fully decompose in a home compost, such as cardboard, compostable mailers, and some bioplastic mailers. These items typically sport a “home compostable” label. Note that home composts must exist under the perfect conditions for proper decomposition to take place. These conditions include high temperatures, compost-friendly materials, and plenty of microorganisms to aid the process.
In an ideal world, after you ship your products in compostable packaging…
- Consumers would follow one of the two methods above.
- All industrial composting facilities could handle the volume of packaging they receive.
- The items would decompose as anticipated in an at-home composter.
- The compostable packaging would return to the soil in a matter of months.
But in reality, that’s just not the case.
Compostable Packaging In Reality
Industrial Composting in Reality
It’s clear that industrial facilities play a key role in the success of compostable packaging. However, not all cities have industrial composting facilities, and the facilities that do exist often refuse packaging.
Why do most facilities refuse compostable packaging? Well, they prefer to prioritize food and yard waste, as it’s much faster to decompose. The food and yard waste is typically ready to be resold to farmers as compost within 90-130 days, allowing the composting facility to turn a quick profit.
Compostable packaging, on the other hand, can take up to six months to decompose in an industrial facility. These composting sites are hesitant to mix packaging with food & yard scraps since they have different decomposition timelines. When the food waste is ready to be sold as compost, the packaging waste must be filtered out and recirculated through the composter. For many facilities, this isn’t worth the trouble, so the compostable packaging ends up in a landfill.
Not to mention, even if a commercial facility does accept compostable packaging, many of the bioplastics look a lot like regular plastic. It’s common for sorters to mistake them for trash and send them to a landfill regardless. In a landfill, the conditions aren’t right for healthy decomposition, so the compostable packaging ends up lingering and creating similar problems as their fossil-fuel-based counterparts.
At-Home Composting in Reality
When it comes to at-home composting, there’s plenty of room for error. For example, if the home is experiencing lower-than-average temperatures or the compost heap is simply not thriving, the compostable packaging may not decompose as expected.
It’s also suspected that many compostable packaging items do not decompose in the suggested time frame, even under the right conditions. An ongoing investigation at UCL called the Big Compost Experiment measures the success of at-home composting by asking the public to directly report their results, finding the following:
What Can We All Do?
We don’t intend for this article to exist as an argument against compostable packaging. Rather, we hope it serves as a discussion starter about which packaging solutions are most realistic and effective at this point in time—and flexible enough to adapt to the times. To help facilitate the discussion about what we can do to improve the compostable packaging landscape, we’ve outlined some important points below. We encourage you to start with these, as we do the same.
- Face the facts. As both producers and consumers of sustainable packaging, we cannot blindly accept compostable packaging as an effective solution. We must face the facts to make empowered decisions about what packaging actually makes sense. The fact is, food is easily compostable and widely accepted by industrial composting facilities. Yet only about 6% of food waste is actually composted in the US. How can we expect to see better numbers for compostable packaging when only a small percentage of industrial composting facilities actually accept this type of organic material?
- Increase education and awareness. Not only should we increase public awareness about the realities of compostable packaging, we can all do our part to educate the world on the different types of compostable packaging, their associated disposal methods, and how to find their local composting facilities. Check out The Ultimate Guide to Compostable Packaging Materials for a jump start on all of these things.
- Advocate for robust composting infrastructure. You can get started by checking out the resources provided by agencies like the US Composting Council, European Compost Network, and International Compost Alliance.
- Use compostable packaging in specific situations. For products that require packaging that’s not easily reusable or recyclable (think chip bags, fruit stickers, and sauce sachets), compostable packaging may be the best fit for a circular economy—especially if these compostable packaging solutions contribute to soil regeneration and healthier food systems. Streamlined sceneries are also ideal applications—consider a large event where compostable packaging and food scraps can be thrown into a single bin without contaminating the waste stream. On top of this, companies that can supply and collect compostable packaging have a better chance of success.
- Make waste reduction the collective priority. Together, we can place the focus on waste reduction to move the world closer to a circular economy. As in most cases, prevention is better than diagnosing and treating.
At GPA Global, we’re committed to providing tailored packaging solutions that minimize waste (and overall environmental impact) from the start. Our designers, engineers, craftsmen, and logistical specialists work with you every step of the way to deliver a bespoke solution that makes the most sense for your brand, the planet, and its people. Whether that’s compostable packaging, recyclable packaging, or a unique combination—you can be sure our packaging solutions consider the product’s entire lifecycle, avoid unintended negative impacts, and utilize methods and materials that are backed by data.
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