Is compostable packaging the answer?

February 17, 2023

Packaging suppliers and manufacturers are marketing their products as biodegradable and compostable to manage the growing demand for sustainable packaging solutions. In the face of growing competition for businesses, there is a real risk that brand owners and consumers could be easily misled - here's my take on the topic. 

With the plastics industry at large moving towards recyclable solutions, where does compostable packaging fit in?

Most household brands now highlight that all of their packaging will be either recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025 in response to mounting pressure from consumers. This is now also becoming a focus for SMEs that also wish to market their brands as eco-friendly.

Consumers are being led to believe that eco-packaging can be easily composted at home, so why are there also calls for more industrial composting facilities to be brought online in the UK?

The simple answer is that these products can’t easily be composted at home. In fact, manufacturers of these products in the UK and EU are governed by BS EN 13432 which is supposed to ensure that packaging marketed as ‘compostable’ has met rigorous laboratory testing to prove that it is suitable for degradation at industrial facilities under specific conditions. As things stand, there are no specific standards in the UK for home compostable packaging and plastics. 

The most popular compostable packaging products currently on the market in this sphere are:

  • Oxo-degradable laminates that are now effectively banned by the EU 
  • Kraft paper with a thin layer of PE (polythene) used for its sealing and barrier properties
  • Kraft paper with a layer of bioplastic such as PLA (polylactic acid).
  • Multilaminate bioplastics such as PLA with a thin barrier layer such as EVOH
If we are to accept that these new packaging products are only really suitable for industrial composting facilities, then packaging manufacturers, suppliers and consumers alike need to be realistic about where these products are going to be most effective in reducing packaging waste and the use of natural resources. 

Despite the lack of collection and processing infrastructure for sustainable packaging in the UK, there are in fact great ways to utilise packaging that is BS EN 13432 compliant or ‘compostable’. Some prominent suggestions include:

  • Use in tea bags, coffee pods and as food waste caddy liners 
  • Closed loops systems such as festivals and other hospitality settings in which the necessary infrastructure can be put in place for all of the packaging and other disposables to be collected, sorted and composted together

In order to help consumers make environmentally responsible decisions and prevent ambiguous messaging, it is imperative to ensure that packaging marketed as ‘compostable' is appropriately labelled. The correct labelling is paramount if we are to prevent mixing up compostable and recyclable plastic feedstock, something that can contaminate both waste streams and devalue their respective end-products. WRAP has provided some guidance on the terms to avoid when labelling compostable packaging:

  • ‘100% compostable’ – avoid language that has no specific meaning. Claims of being compostable should be paired with disposal information
  • ‘Plastic free’ – compostable plastics are still plastics
  • ‘Compostable’, ‘Degradable’ or ‘Biodegradable’ – vague, unqualified terminology should be avoided
  • Avoid using the terms compostable and recyclable together.
  • ‘Biodegradable’ – this term does not mean anything on its own and it is recommended to avoid – it only has meaning when it is qualified with a particular environment (e.g. soil, open, marine) and specified conditions. However, any references to biodegradability in the natural environment are very difficult to verify. 

Bearing all of this in mind, should brand owners still look for compostable solutions?

Regardless of your sustainability goals, it is important to remember that packaging must function correctly. The primary purpose of all flexible packaging is to protect products, so if using compostable packaging leads to food products become spoiled, damaged or tarnished it has effectively failed in its purpose. 

It is likely that technological improvements, particularly in the bioplastics and paper coatings sectors, will lead to compostable packaging becoming a more viable and widespread sustainable packaging solution for the future, but for now it’s probably best to stick to recyclable packaging. 

If you liked this article, and would like to read more on this type of topic, I'd highly recommend checking out alphaCommerce for some really insightful articles on sustainability.

“I want to start the conversations that help to dispel the myths around sustainability”

– Elliot Hyams