Compostable Food Packaging
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 getting fleeced or “greenwashing” begins.
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, a plastic that is “biodegradable” 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 what remains after the plastic has broken down. For example, it’s considered OK if there are 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 just to further confuse everyone – “oxo–degradable”. In this case, with the addition of a chemical to kick off the degradation process, the 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 plastic 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, and it must do so within a verified amount of time. Further, it must be fully disclosed under what conditions it will break down. For example, most of today’s compostable packaging requires the controlled conditions in a commercial composting facility to properly compost within 180 days.
So, to simplify:
Degradable = the packaging will break down over time. The length of time and what it breaks down into are not regulated. Using that logic, your car is also 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 crawled under your couch cushion and slowly emitted an untraceable odor for months on end is good example of this.
Compostable = the packaging will break down in a controlled amount of time in a commercial facility and will create soil or “hummus” that is usable to grow new plants. Worm food. Mmmm – tasty.
We use the ASTM D6400 standard to test compostability of our plant-based materials, which states that they will break down in a commercial compost facility within 180 days. We are further committed to the FTC guidelines to clearly state this will only reliably happen in a commercial composting facility.
However, here comes the final and arguably most important part of the whole topic. It’s not enough to test the materials to ensure compostability. The final packaging as it is likely to arrive at a composter must be tested. This means the addition of labels, sealants, packaging contents and other affixed accessories must be part of the ASTM test. Failing this, the most likely outcome when the packaging arrives at the compost facility is that it will be rejected. For this reason, you’ll see our packaging shows the percentage of plant-based content, but you won’t see us making blanket statements that it’s “compostable”. We’ll want to work with you first to understand whether your customers are living in a region where they can access commercial composting services and what other elements the final assembled packaging will contain before recommending packaging-specific compostability certification.
Regardless of all this, the vast majority of packaging ends up in landfills (read more about this in recycling), and all of it slowly degrades to some extent. In the case of our plant-based packaging, it will not leach potentially hazardous chemicals into the soil or water table when that happens. Traditional petroleum-based plastics cannot make this claim, regardless of their end-of-life options.