Sustainability means meeting our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable packaging, also known as eco-friendly or green packaging, is defined as being easy to recycle, safe for individuals, safe for the environment, and made out of recycled materials.
Many packaged products are advertised with environmental sustainability jargon, such as “eco-friendly,” “biodegradable” or “compostable,” without companies elaborating on the claims, and consumers are rightfully confused.
What exactly do each of these sustainability terms mean, and how do these claims reflect the type of product packaging you’re getting? Read on to find out.
Biodegradable and compostable both describe a package’s end of life – but while all compostable materials are biodegradable, not all biodegradable materials are compostable. Biodegradable means that an item can decompose into its base elements through microbial activity over time. Compostable describes a material’s ability to biodegrade in a short time period in a controlled composting environment.
These sustainability terms are used interchangeably, which adds to consumer confusion. The biggest difference is that biodegrading occurs naturally, while composting is a human-driven process.
What Does Biodegradable Mean?
When a biodegradable material reaches the end of its life cycle, bacteria and other organisms in an ecosystem will begin to break down the product. Gradually, the material will decompose, or biodegrade, in natural environments and will eventually be converted into components such as carbon dioxide and water.
Examples of Biodegradable Products
Most biodegradable packaging materials are made of cardboard, paper, cornstarch, and bioplastic. Examples include label stock, board stock, corrugated boxes, packaging peanuts and envelopes.
Many biodegradable packages consist of bio-based materials, though there are a few exceptions. When in doubt, it’s best to ask your material supplier directly to ensure the materials align with your sustainability initiatives.
How to Measure the Biodegradability of a Material
OECD 301B is the main way to measure a material’s biodegradability. This international testing method measures how quickly a material will break down in water over a period of 28 days. If a material passes the OECD 301B test within the 28-day timeframe and within 10 days of reaching 10% biodegradation, it’s categorized as “readily biodegradable.”
How to Properly Dispose of Biodegradable Materials
Composting is usually the best way to dispose of biodegradable materials, though you can safely toss biodegradable waste in the trash. It’s also important to note that conditions like temperature, water, light, oxygen and bacteria impact the time it takes for products to biodegrade. Materials that can safely biodegrade in nature or a home compost heap will take much longer to biodegrade in a landfill.
What Does Compostable Mean?
Compostable materials will quickly biodegrade in a home or industrial composting environment. In order for a product to be classified as compostable, the material must biodegrade naturally without leaving visual remnants or unacceptable levels of toxic residues.
When comparing compostable vs. biodegradable materials, remember that while all compostable materials are biodegradable, not all biodegradable materials are compostable.
Examples of Compostable Products
Compostable packaging materials are derived from fossils, trees, sugar cane, seaweed, cellulose fiber or other renewable resources. Common examples include paperboard, paperfoam, bamboo fiber, coatings, inks and additives.
How to Measure the Compostability of a Material
The ASTM D6400 and ASTM D6868 standards are often used to evaluate the compostable characteristics of plastic and fiber-based packaging materials. ASTM D6400 measures if plastic or plastic-based products will “compost satisfactorily” in municipal and industrial aerobic composting facilities.
Meanwhile, ASTM D686 measures whether or not packaging materials with attached biodegradable plastic film or coating compost in the same kinds of facilities.
How to Properly Dispose of Compostable Materials
Compostable packaging materials – including those made of plastic – can be composted in a commercial or industrial composting facility. If this kind of facility isn’t located nearby, it’s best to throw compostable materials in the garbage since they often aren’t recyclable.
There are only a few industrial composting facilities around the world, which means a lot of brands are greenwashing their environmental claims by saying a product is compostable when it realistically cannot be composted. Home compostability is a more realistic standard which SmartSolve materials meet, meaning the packaging materials can decompose into nutrient-rich soil in a home compost bin. The ideal conditions for composting are warm temperatures, moisture, plenty of oxygen and nutrients.
What Does Bio-Based Mean?
Bio-based products are made from renewable plant or animal feedstocks at the beginning of a package’s life cycle. The terms “biobased,” “renewable” and “biotic” are used interchangeably.
Most bio-based materials are biodegradable, and some are compostable. On labels, the percentage of bio-based materials listed reflects the quantity of renewable materials that were sourced to make the product.
Examples of Bio-Based Products
The most common examples of bio-based materials are fiber-based packaging, paper and adhesives that originate from trees, wheat straw or bamboo. Others include bioplastics, which are made from materials like food waste, sugarcane, corn starch, potatoes, mushroom roots and algae. PLA, a bioplastic made from corn, is often used in compostable food packaging.
How to Quantify a Material’s Bio-Based Content
The bio-based nature of a product is tested against the ASTM D6866 standard which quantifies a material’s bio-based content. This standard uses radiocarbon analysis to determine the content of solid, liquid or gaseous samples.
Currently, a material only needs to contain 20% renewable materials to be called a bioplastic, which means the other 80% could be made of fossil fuel-based plastic resins or synthetic additives which will not degrade. SmartSolve is working to create a bio-based substrate containing 100% bio-based content.
How to Properly Dispose of Bio-Based Products
If bio-based products are also biodegradable and compostable, they can be composted or brought to a biogas plant to be used as renewable energy. Many bio-based packaging materials can also be recycled, including bio-based plastics. When recycled, bio-based plastics are collected by recyclers and brought to a recycling plant. After being processed, they can be reused.
One downfall of bio-based products is that not all types can be recycled in the same way, and recyclability often depends on the facility. For example, bio-based paper is recyclable as long as the facility can recycle paper.
SmartSolve’s water soluble materials are comprised of bio-based wood fibers that are sourced from FSC Certified forests. Our paper-based materials are non-toxic, biodegradable and approved for both home and industrial composting.
There is still progress to be made across the industry to make product packaging more eco-friendly, and we see a future full of innovation to help companies reach their sustainability goals and reduce our environmental impact. Get in touch with our team to discuss how our water soluble materials can help you go beyond recycling.