Consumers are increasingly expecting the brands they shop with to not only sell sustainable goods for consumer use, but to utilize sustainable practices in making, sourcing, and selling those goods.
An increased focus on sustainability is set to become the norm in 2021. 73% of eCommerce businesses plan to implement at least one new eco-friendly practice according to Searchnode. The area of most focus is packaging. 58% of companies plan to update or switch out their packaging in 2021.
There is a wide variety of sustainable packaging materials, from recycled cardboard to styrofoam made from corn. When it comes to plastic packaging materials, though, there will be two words you come across frequently: “compostable” and “biodegradable.”
Biodegradable and compostable plastics have become viable alternatives to the classic petroleum-based plastics — and for good reason. Petroleum-based plastic is made from a non-renewable resource. It takes up to one thousand years to break down. These kinds of plastics are now clogging our oceans with such speed that there’s an island of garbage in the Pacific larger than Texas.
But what exactly are biodegradable and compostable plastics, anyway?
What is biodegradable plastic?
Biodegradable means that a material will eventually break down to its molecules. And by that definition, pretty much everything is biodegradable given enough time.
However, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires that materials labeled or marketed as biodegradable decompose completely within the first year of disposal. In order to meet that timeframe, the materials need to be made primarily from naturally occurring sources.
Biodegradable plastic is typically made out of one of two compounds:
- Polyactic Acid (PLA), which comes from the sugars found in sugarcane, cornstarch, and cassava. As a result, PLA is actually edible. PLA is the most common form of biodegradable plastic as it can replace plastic films, styrofoam, and other packaging materials. It can even be used in textiles and auto parts.
- Polyhydroxyalkonoate (PHA) is made by microorganisms provided with high levels of carbon dioxide. It has a similar chemical structure to traditional plastics. As a result, it’s often used for single-use food packaging, sutures, or bone plates.
It should be noted that biodegradable plastics may still include phthalates or bisphenol A.
What is compostable plastic?
Compostable materials are a subcategory of biodegradable materials. It’s the same as how all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. All compostable materials are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable materials are compostable.
Compostable plastics decompose rapidly and can be composted at least in an industrial facility if not also within a home compost pile with organic material.
At its most basic, the FTC says that something is compostable if “all the materials in the product or package will break down into, or otherwise become a part of, usable compost” in the same timeframe as other materials in the pile.
The US has additional compostability standards that must be met to earn the compostable label. In the ASTM D6400, a material must disintegrate in twelve weeks or fewer, and then biodegrade at least 90% biodegraded within 180 days.
In order to achieve this rapid biodegradation, compostable products and materials need to be made completely from naturally occurring sources. (For something to be merely biodegradable, it need only be made up partially of natural resources.)
All standards say that consumers should assume that something can only be composted in an industrial facility unless otherwise stated on the material.
What are oxo-degradable and recycled plastics?
You’ll likely come across two other types of plastics as you look at sustainable packaging: oxo-degradable and recycled.
Oxo-degradable plastics are not made of naturally-occurring materials. Instead, it’s just conventional plastic that has additives that will cause it to break down into small pieces known as microplastics. These microplastics then stay in the environment for as long as it takes to break traditional plastic down.
Recycled plastic, on the other hand, is pre-existing plastics that have been reformed into something new, like toys or water bottles. Recycled plastics help reduce the amount of plastic in our oceans and landfills, though they will not break down any quicker.
The Caveat to Compostable Plastic
As good as compostable and biodegradable plastics sound, there is still an important caveat to their success: the overwhelming need for industrial composting facilities.
Biodegradable and compostable plastics cannot be recycled and they cannot fully breakdown in a landfill as there simply isn’t enough oxygen there. And often, they can’t be composted in a home composter.
Yet even as compostable materials become more common (Starbucks started using compostable cups recently), industrial composting facilities are not opening at the same rate. In 2017, BioCycle reported that there were only 4,713 composting facilities across the US, of which only a slim 5% can process biosolids.
However, using biodegradable and compostable materials is still a really good idea for a number of reasons:
- First, the global composting market is expected to reach $9.2B by 2024, as more and more big names like Starbucks invest in compostable materials. Industrial composting facilities should be very common soon.
- Next, because compostable materials are made of natural renewable resources like corn, they’re still better than regular plastic. The production of biodegradable plastics is cleaner and less harmful to the environment even if the materials all end up in a landfill anyway.
Biodegradable vs compostable packaging
While all biodegradable materials are a step up from non-biodegradable ones, your business should consider using compostable packaging whenever possible. Compostable packaging is best for a few reasons:
- When it can be composted at home, compostable packaging significantly reduces waste. And it’s not hard to find well-priced domestically-compostable materials even if you run a small business. For instance, noissue offers 100% compostable mailers which can be composted not just at an industrial composting facility, but also in a home composting facility alongside food scraps.
- Compostable materials leave behind no harmful substances or toxic residue at all, while other biodegradable materials still may.
- The compostable label is stringent, meaning the materials you purchase are guaranteed to break down rapidly. The term biodegradable is a bit looser and can sometimes be used by marketers to mislead customers. It’s not uncommon for companies to use a minute amount of bioplastics in their packaging just to slap the biodegradable label on, despite the fact that it’s still virtually impossible for the packaging to biodegrade.
Companies Using Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging
Many companies are replacing their plastic bags, mailers, and even bubble wrap, with biodegradable or compostable packaging. (Some companies, like AllBirds, are even producing compostable items and biodegradable products like sneakers.)
Huckleberry Roasters, a coffee shop, uses biodegradable packaging for their coffee beans. Their bags are 60% wood pulp that’s completely biodegradable and 40% polyethylene liner that takes up to a decade to fully decompose.
Loving Earth is a company making ethically-sourced chocolates. While all their packaging materials are at the very least recyclable, their chocolate bars in particular are wrapped in a compostable film made of corn and wood cellulose.
BodySpritz creates vegan and cruelty-free tanning solutions. All of their packaging is sustainable, including their tape. However, their mailers, in particular, are compostable.
Treball Active is an athletic wear brand that is “consciously not a fast-fashion brand." As they focus on creating sustainable clothing items for active people, they chose packaging to match. They use a variety of sustainable packaging materials, including compostable mailers.
Starting in 2009, Coca-Cola actually became one of the leading producers in biodegradable packaging with the production of their PlantBottle. This bottle was initially made of up to 30% plant-based materials, but as of 2019 they switched the bottle over to 100% recyclable instead.
The Foodies Larder offers completely compostable single-use coffee pods compatible with a Nespresso machine.
Wrapping it up (compostably)
We’re likely not far out from a world where nearly all plastics are biodegradable, if not compostable. With companies like noissue making such plastics accessible for even the smallest businesses, there’s not much reason for companies to keep utilizing single-use petroleum-based plastic packaging anymore.