The Differences Between Biodegradable, Compostable and Recyclable Packaging
Updated: Feb 23, 2021
Sustainable Packaging Options: The Choice is Yours
When it comes to sustainable packaging, you'd be forgiven for thinking that biodegradable, compostable and recyclable products are all the same; but they're not. Sure, we'd all like to think that because these kinds of products are being marketed as Earth-conscious and eco-friendly that they've all been made from renewable resources using little to no energy and making little to no waste; but this isn't entirely the case. The same for believing that each of these types of product can be disposed of in ways that won't harm the planet. But sadly, this isn't entirely true either... Not that we're saying that these different types of environmentally-responsible products are all bad, it's just some are too good to be true, at the moment at least, until the technology used to make them improves.
So if they are all different, it begs the questions; what are the differences between biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable products, and what makes one type of sustainable packaging better for the planet than another?
Biodegradable vs Degradable - What's the Difference?
Biodegradable products are those which decompose and break down naturally into water; carbon dioxide and organic matter. They typically do not release any harmful residues back into the air or our planet's soils or waterways.
Degradable materials on the other hand, while it might appear that they break down to nothingness like biodegradable products, actually end up leaving minute traces of harmful material behind in the air, in water and in soil, which is not, like the marketing blurb describes as being environmentally-friendly at all. For example, a degradable plastic carrier bag will decompose but unlike a biodegradable one (i.e. a kitchen caddy bag), it'll leave microscopic petroleum-based elements behind; definitely not good for our planet or our wildlife.
The Different Types of Biodegradability
To confuse matters, biodegradable is actually a generalised term used to describe the ways in which a material decomposes under certain environmental conditions. As such, there are actually three different types of degradability when it comes to biodegradable packaging. You have;
Bio-compostable materials will reduce down to three naturally occurring elements; water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. Like their name suggests, bio-compostable products need a specific environment in which to degrade; they need to be mixed with organic microorganisms in a highly humid, high-temperature composting environment, otherwise they won't degrade. That's why it's so important that you only place bio-compostable items, like kitchen caddy bags and compostable mailers in your food waste recycling bin (or take them to an industrial composting unit), because otherwise they can just end up as normal waste.
All genuine bio-compostable products in the UK and throughout Europe should carry the Din Certco EN13432 certification which means they're bona fide compostable materials and are approved for Earth-safe composting.
Oxo-degradable materials, like degradable bubble wrap; carrier bags, straws, and stationery, all contain a metallic additive, which, when in the presence of oxygen and sunlight, sets off a slow chemical reaction to begin their decomposition. However, if these types of product don't have access to the sunlight or oxygen they need, they won't degrade at all. So, if you were to accidentally place an oxo-degradable item in a rubbish bin, it would end up in a landfill somewhere not being able to decompose; it would only be adding to the build up of waste.
That being said, even if these types of "eco-friendly" product did have the environmental and chemical conditions they needed to decompose, they would never degrade fully; oxo-degradable products (until waste management technologies improve) always leave harmful residues and plastic / metallic particles behind in the air; in our waterways and in our earth.
Landfill Biodegradable materials like plant-based plastic cups; toothbrushes, dental floss, self-fill tea bags and disposable aprons contain a patented additive which causes microorganisms in landfills to metabolise the materials into fertiliser. Any product that has passed the standard ASTM D5511 test can be classed as fully biodegradable in landfills.
Interestingly, these are the only types of biodegradable plastics that are 100 percent recyclable with other mainstream plastics; so you can choose to place them either in your waste bin or in your recycling bin; either way, you're helping to keep our planet green by limiting the amount of waste we produce.
Which is best: Bio-Compostable, Oxo-degradable or Landfill Biodegradable?
In summary, bio-compostable is the best type of sustainable packaging to use (and dispose of) because in terms of being Earth-safe and environmentally-conscious, they never secrete harmful toxins, chemicals or byproducts back into our airways; waterways or soils; bio-compostable decomposition is a completely natural process. By choosing compostable, you're not only helping to protect our planet by reducing waste, you're also giving something back to the planet; you're feeding the Earth natural, organic fertilisers which our plants and trees need to grow and thrive.
Like bio-compostable materials, landfill biodegradable products are also eco-friendly as they can either be recycled or they can be put in a rubbish bin; eventually becoming fertiliser. However, while these types of product can help us reduce the amount of waste we're piling into our landfills, it appears that they can negatively impact our climate as one of the natural chemicals given off in this type of decomposition is methane gas. Methane gas is 21 times more detrimental to our ozone layer than carbon dioxide, so if a landfill doesn't have - and if you'll excuse the pun - at its disposal high-tech methane-capture technology to harness the gas as a free fuel (and almost all landfill sites in the UK don't), then the methane goes straight up into our atmosphere and continues to contribute to global warming.
Oxo-degradable products and plastics marketed as being "completely degradable" are by far the worst type of sustainable packaging to invest in. Not only do they fail to decompose if they don't have access to specific chemical and environmental conditions, even if they do degrade, they don't disappear entirely; they leave harmful residues behind that have adverse affects on our environment. Not to mention, oxo-degradable products can't be recycled, so until such times when advancements in waste management technologies have been realised, these types of materials are destined to add to our waste and will continue making our planet and all living things on it, unhealthy; particularly as when this type of packaging decomposes, the small plastic fragments can end up in the very air we breathe.
So, on the face of it, bio-compostable packaging is seemingly the best type of packaging to choose. But what is the difference, if any, between biodegradable packaging and compostable packaging?
Biodegradable vs Compostable - What's the Difference?
All compostable items are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable items are compostable
Both biodegradable and compostable materials are intended to return to the earth safely without leaving any harmful waste products or chemicals behind, but while there is a 50/50 chance of achieving this with biodegradable packaging, there is a 100 percent chance of achieving it with compostable materials.
While biodegradable items can return to nature and can be turned into fertiliser, they do have the potential to contaminate our planet as they can sometimes leave toxins and residues behind - certainly, if they're landfill biodegradable items, they can also emit methane gas into our atmosphere. Compostable products don't carry these risks at all, and when they break down, they go one step further by creating an organic substance which plants and trees need desperately; humus.
Think of humus as being a big sponge; not only can it hold up to 90 percent of it’s weight in water, it also attracts and soaks up the essential nutrients that plants need and which, ordinarily, the rain would wash away. When a plant's roots come into contact with the humus, they can remove the nutrients while having a drink. The process is a bit more complicated than this, but you can think of humus as being an organic slow release fertilizer; perfect for our planet and unlike the fertiliser made from biodegradable products, it's completely natural.
So, the major difference between biodegradable and compostable materials is that compostable packaging is far more beneficial for our environment than biodegradable packaging.
Choosing Compostable: How to Check if a Product is Genuinely Compostable or Not
There are several ways in which to check whether a product is fully compostable. The first way is to consider what the product is made of. If it's made entirely of natural materials, such as cardboard, palm leaves or bamboo, then that item can be composted because it's wholly organic.
If the compostable product is a corn, potato or wheat starch-based item that has been combined with innovative thermoplastics, (like kitchen caddy bags), then you will need to check that the product has been approved by either one of the two European certification bodies; Din Certco or Vinçotte.
Each organisation has its own approval logo but shares the same certification code; EN 13432. So, on your kitchen caddy bags, not only should you see one of the logos above, you should also be able to see a valid 7P (Din Certco) or Sxx (Vinçotte) code. If your bags don't have these, then they are not genuinely compostable.
After checking your bags, if you're still unsure as to whether your bags are legitimately compostable or not, there are ways you can check their validity. You can either approach your supplier and ask to see their product certificates, or you can visit the following product databases; Din Certco and OK Compost.
Why is Knowing the Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable so Important?
It's important to know what types of packaging materials you're buying, using and disposing of because your sustainable packaging choices will either have a positive or negative impact on our planet. Weighing up the pros and cons of biodegradable packaging and comparing them with the pros and cons of compostable materials is essential to selecting the type of sustainable packaging you think is best for the Earth and Mother Nature.
But remember, many items that are labeled or marketed as "biodegradable" and "eco-friendly" are, in actuality, not Earth-conscious at all.
The Risks of "Green Washing"
Since there is an increasing demand for compostable products, there are inevitably going to be companies and persons misusing statements such as "made from compostable materials" or "100 percent compostable" that flagrantly aren't true and so are detrimental to the industry, compost producers and the environment.
"Green washing" or putting an eco-friendly spin on products is becoming more of an issue as the public, now more than ever, see environmental impacts as being an important prerequisite to many of the everyday decisions and choices they make. Sweeping statements and conveying unwarranted information by companies is driven by the view that environmental credentials sell products, but as is often the case, the reality is in no way representative of the claims. For example, you can invest in plant-based plastics which are often described as being biodegradable, but while they are designed to break down more easily than regular plastics and should be safer for the environment, if the right environmental factors aren't present, they will release toxic metallic residues back into the ground and can take just as long as regular plastics to degrade.
So, while compostable packaging appears to be the best way to go, it's important to double check that you are actually receiving authentic compostable products.
But what about Recyclable Products?
Are those a good choice of packaging?
In short; yes. Recyclable materials are also a good, sustainable choice.
While recyclable items might not give anything beneficial back to the planet (like humus), every time we send a recyclable product to a recycling plant and it's transformed into something else, we're reducing the amount of waste we make (and therefore dump); we save an abundance of energy during the manufacturing processes compared to how much energy is used when making brand new, "virgin" products, and we are constantly up-cycling and re-purposing items which helps keep the economy stable and supply and demand reliably balanced. It's like the 1940's era of "Make do and Mend" all over again!
Every time we recycle aluminium we save 40 barrels of oil and 10 cubic yards of space at landfills.
Packaging Shouldn't Cost the Earth; Go Compostable and Recyclable or Go Home!
In the end, going fully compostable and / or fully recyclable is the way to go when it comes to buying, using and disposing sustainable packaging.
While it's easy to believe companies and individuals who talk a good talk and market their products as Earth-friendly and completely renewable, we now know what they say might not entirely be the case. For example, oxo-degradable products don't disintegrate into nothingness, rather they leave nasty, harmful residues behind in the air, in soils and in our waterways, and not all biodegradable products are harmless either. If they haven't got the correct environmental or chemical conditions in which to decompose, they can leave nasty residues behind too. They can even emit methane gas into the atmosphere.
So, the safest ways to dispose of items are to make sure they're genuinely compostable or fully recyclable. That way, you know you're not going to cause pollution when you compost something and you're going to keep waste away from them landfills. Not to mention, you'd be helping to keep Great Britain's carbon footprint down and our economy stable, you'd be helping us as a species to not be so reliant on fossil fuels, and you'd be helping to create humus which is a highly beneficial byproduct of composting which feeds and waters our plants and trees with the essential nutrients they need to thrive.