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What does Compostable Packaging Mean?

It's no secret that sustainability buzzwords and greenwashing terminology have increased in popularity across many industries over the last few years. As a result, figuring out whether your products are "compostable" or "biodegradable" can confuse you! How do these terms differ, and how can you know if your packaging is genuinely sustainable? good natured uses the ASTM D6400 standards to test compostability of our plant-based materials, which confirms they will break down in a commercial compost facility within 180 days. We are further committed to Federal Trade Commission guidelines to clearly indicate when this will only reliably happen in a commercial composting facility. 

The FTC is cracking down on “green” claims and has extensive guidelines to help ensure consumers can review factual and quantifiable information about eco-friendly products and packaging. Some of the most confusing and misrepresented terms have been around biodegradability and compostability (and recyclability, which you can read more about here). 

According to the FTC, for a material to be called “biodegradable”, it must “completely break down and return to nature (i.e., decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonably short period of time after disposal.” There is no set definition for a “reasonably short period of time” and fewer restrictions on exactly what elements remain after it has broken down. For example, it’s considered OK if a biodegradable material contains traces of metals or other residue, provided those are naturally found in the environment. That’s pretty good, but this also led to a sneaky new term being introduced in the plastics world (just to confuse everyone further) – “oxo–degradable”. In this case, with the addition of a chemical to kick off the degradation process, a plastic will break into microscopic granular or fiber-like fragments. In other words, it will disappear to the naked eye, but the microscopic bits and pieces of plastic and potentially hazardous additives live on, like, forever. 

For packaging to be called “compostable”, the FTC states that there must be scientific evidence that it will naturally break down into soil or “hummus” that is safe and usable to fuel the growth of new plants. It must do so within a verified amount of time, and the conditions in which it will break down must be fully disclosed. Consumers may assume that all compostable packaging can be composted at home. But in fact, most of today's compostable packaging requires controlled conditions in a commercial composting facility to compost within 180 days properly. Therefore, there is a significant difference between home and commercially compostable food packaging. Our friends at Whidbey Pies understand this.

 So, to simplify: 

Degradable = the packaging will break down over time. The length of time and what it breaks down into are not regulated. Ex. your car is fully degradable – some faster than others!

Oxo-degradable = when exposed to sunlight, the packaging will break down into much smaller fragments of exactly what it was before. Just like that glitter on the holiday decorations that gets everywhere and just never goes away. Ever. 

Biodegradable = the packaging will break down into elements found in nature, but it can take its sweet time doing it and can’t reliably be used to grow new stuff. That tiny shred of chicken that fell under your couch cushion and has been slowly emitting an untraceable odor for months is a good example. 

Commercially compostable = the packaging will break down in a controlled amount of time in a commercial facility and will create soil or “hummus.” You can use it to grow new plants. Worm food. Mmmm – tasty.

Home Compostable = the packaging will break down in a regular home compost bin. All components and materials will decompose into the soil and can be used to grow new plants

But wait! There’s more to the story. Claiming that a material used to create packaging is compostable does not mean the final packaging can be composted. This is where the risk of “greenwashing” really begins. 

It's not enough to only test the raw materials to ensure compostability. You must also test the final packaging as it's likely to arrive at a composter. This is because different thicknesses and manufacturing methods can impact whether the item will still reliably break down within the required time. That's why some of our food packaging has additional independent certifications, like the Compost Manufacturing Alliance or the Biodegradable Products Institute, that confirm home or commercial compostability and/or highlight that they’re accepted for composting in certain commercial composting systems. In these cases, the actual food packaging has been tested to ensure they do what we say they’ll do. This is also why you’ll see our packaging always lists the percentage of plant-based material it contains, but you won’t see us making blanket statements that all our stuff is “compostable”. We make sure both the material and the packaging have passed the test. 

Suppose home compostable food packaging isn't an option and you're unsure about the commercial composting process. In that case, we can provide insights on whether or not you or your customers live in a region where commercial composting services are available. Or if your city or region is subject to regulations that may make it essential to choose certain types of certified compostable packaging. We can also advise you on the addition of labels, sealants and other accessories that may impact whether the composter will accept your used packaging once it reaches their facility.

Regardless of home or commercial compostability, it’s important to recognize that most food packaging still ends up in landfills (read more about recycling), and all of it slowly degrades to some extent. In the case of our plant-based and compostable packaging, it will not leach potentially hazardous chemicals into the soil or water table when that happens. Traditional petroleum-based plastic packaging cannot make this claim, regardless of the end-of-life options the industry promotes.