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Compostable vs. Biodegradable Packaging: How Are They Different?

Sustainability is a concept that brands in just about every industry are paying attention to these days. Consumers are more concerned about sustainability of both products and packaging, and the brands that address these concerns stand to strengthen their relationships with consumers.

Hands holding globe with butterfly.

Some of the terms associated with sustainability have blurred boundaries, and may be mistaken for each other. Two such terms are “biodegradable” and “compostable.” It’s important that brands understand the differences between the two, and what they mean in terms of packaging and consumer sentiment. 

Biodegradable: Oxygen Not Required

For a substance to claim to be biodegradable, the Federal Trade Commission stipulates that it must break down in a “reasonably short” period of time after being disposed of. To the typical consumer, that “reasonably short” time period should be something like one year. However, many biodegradable packages and products take five or more years to begin degradation.

Another important point about biodegradable substances is that they do not require oxygen in order to break down. In other words, biodegradable substances can break down in either aerobic (where oxygen is present) or anaerobic (where oxygen is not present) conditions. In landfills, most bioreactions are anaerobic, because landfills are designed to keep out air and moisture.

Biodegradable Packaging Not Suitable for Composting

If biodegradable packaging breaks down whether or not oxygen is present, then why not compost it instead? Unfortunately, while biodegradable products break down and may ultimately look indistinguishable from other compost, they may contain components such as metals, which can interfere with the compost’s ability to enrich soil safely. If biodegradable products are composted, they should not be used in the ways that compost is traditionally used—as a way of enriching soil used to grow plants. 

Compostable Packaging Must Meet Stricter Criteria

To claim to be compostable, a material must meet stricter standards than those required to claim biodegradability. First, compostable materials must already be biodegradable. Furthermore, they must disintegrate, and the end product must be free from toxins. Once a compostable material has been composted, it is free of toxins and metals safe for use in supporting plant life. 

Compost bins.

In short, compostable materials must be biodegradable by default, but biodegradable materials are not necessarily compostable. And while anaerobic composting (composting that does not involve oxygen) can be done, typical composting is aerobic. Aerobic composting is faster and more efficient. Most household composters, for example, are designed to regularly introduce aeration into the compost. 

Compostable Packaging Has Difficulty Breaking Down in Landfills

Since compostable packaging is by definition also biodegradable, why not put it in a landfill? The reason is that most landfills are designed to be anaerobic, and composting is slow and inefficient in such an environment. Making packaging compostable has more immediate benefits to consumers and other entities that compost waste, because it can be broken down and re-used as soil enrichment when composted in an aerobic environment. 

With sustainability becoming increasingly important to consumers, it’s important that packaging be marked properly if it claims to be biodegradable or compostable. Biodegradable packaging must conform to ASTM D6868, and compostable packaging must conform to ASTM D6400. Already, retail giants like Amazon and Walmart have fought lawsuits concerning these labels, so it’s important that brands claiming biodegradability or compostability of packaging be confident that the products indeed meet the standards. 

Consumers are more cognizant of sustainability, and they like packaging that is biodegradable or compostable. It’s up to brands to avoid using the terms interchangeably and to ensure packaging meets standards for the claim. Otherwise, reputation damage could undo much of the hard work that brands put into addressing sustainability efforts. PKG Brand Design is always on the forefront of new CPG branding and packaging initiatives; please subscribe to our blog for the latest package design industry news!

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