Compostable Packaging vs. Biodegradable: Which Is More Eco-Friendly?

In today’s steadily expanding ‘green’ market, there is a lot of confusion among ethical consumers about what exactly some of the labeling means – and with good reason. There is an incredible amount of new terminology coming to the marketplace. A good portion of the terminology has to do with the packaging materials, which are a major concern now that the amount of waste being dumped in the oceans and third world countries has become public knowledge. To help clarify things, we’d like to explain the difference between ‘compostable,’ ‘biodegradable,’ ‘degradable,’ and the standard of our own packaging material, ‘backyard compostable.’

According to the American Society for Testing & Materials (ASTM), compostable plastic has to be ‘capable of undergoing biological decomposition (..) such that the plastic is not visually distinguishable and breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, (…) and leaves no toxic residue.’ Additionally, it needs to break down at about the same rate as paper.How is this different from biodegradability? For a plastic to be biodegradable, it merely needs to degrade due to the functioning of some living microorganism. But biodegradability standards do not address the amount of time the material takes to degrade, nor if it leaves a toxic residue. Unfortunately, most biodegradable waste (such as plastic cups made from corn starch), are buried in landfills too deep for the bacteria responsible for biodegrading to survive – there’s just not enough oxygen. And when there isn’t enough oxygen present, many of these biodegradable plastic release methane (a potent greenhouse gas) while degrading. Even worse, many of them can leave behind toxic residues such as heavy metals – which are harmful to plants, animals, and humans (Source: GreenLivingTips).

An even weaker environmental standard would be degradable plastics. For a plastic to be ‘degradable’, it simply needs to be able to be broken down through chemical reactions in a man-made environment. Usually these plastics are oil-based; a byproduct of gasoline production.

Arbor Teas’ new packaging rises above all three of these standards – the next-generation material we use is backyard compostable. In addition to all of the requirements for compostability set forth by the ASTM (as described above), backyard compostable materials need to degrade relatively quickly in a natural environment. Many products labeled as ‘compostable’ only break down under industrial conditions – usually large metal containers with computer-controlled aeration, humidity, and oxygen levels that provide optimal conditions for microorganisms to break down the material (Spellman 79). But backyard compostable materials, like those implemented by Arbor Teas, can break down in a natural environment – like a compost pile behind your house – turning into viable, usable soil that is free of any toxic residues.

June 30 2010 09:55 am | Green Business and Sustainability

10 Responses to “Compostable Packaging vs. Biodegradable: Which Is More Eco-Friendly?”

  1. dinesh on 30 Jun 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    Really appreciate y’all sharing this information. I run a green buying co-operative and one of the things we help small businesses purchase is food packaging.

    There’s just a monstrous knowledge gap though when it comes to these products and most folks have no idea that ‘biodegradable’ is essentially a meaningless term when it comes to food packaging, and as you state has no requirements with respect to “time for degredation” or “eco-toxicity”.

    I’m curious, have you looked into any certifications for ‘backyard compostability’. I read about a certification the other day for it in Europe, but I haven’t heard of one in the states.

  2. Jeremy on 30 Jun 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    Hi Dinesh!

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments and suggestion! Yes, we’re considering making an application for the European certification (OK Compost HOME) for our new packaging. I’m not familiar with similar certifications in the US, but certainly welcome such…

    Please, keep the suggestions coming!

  3. Erica on 20 Jul 2010 at 8:38 am #

    I love that you’re doing this! I hate to throw anything away, and that fact that your packaging is not just staying out of my garbage can but actually helping my garden grow puts it way ahead of just recyclable!

    Time to go turn the compost pile.

  4. Barbara on 09 Aug 2010 at 12:01 am #

    Yes, compostable and biodegradable are different. the most important thing to me, personally, is using non-synthetic, non plastic packaging, also not resource intensive, which will not be around in a hundred or more years, like plastic or plastic/(mined)aluminum pachaging. Thanks for your efforts in this direction!

  5. Valerie Jenner on 09 Aug 2010 at 8:00 am #

    I have extensive research and documentation I did regarding biodegradable packaging and compostable including the US and European actual standards. All this research was done for the Zero Waste Pilot we did over three years at the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair. When we took the compostable bioware to Tuthill farm to compost it could not be found after only five days. We were expecting weeks/months. This is an extensive report: for more details please go to my blog: http://zerotrashtalk.blogspot.com/2010/04/biodegradable-vs-compostable-plastic.html and the 2009 report is listed on the street art fairs website: http://www.artfair.org/main/main.jsp?id=20
    Really glad the tea house is using this material for their packaging. You are doing an excellent job.

  6. Jeremy on 09 Aug 2010 at 12:43 pm #

    Thank you all so much for the wonderful comments. Just one clarification, Valerie: we’re a separate enterprise from the Tea Haus on Fourth Ave.

    Great materials and info on your blog!

  7. Tricia on 26 Aug 2010 at 10:00 pm #

    This is very informative – I didn’t know the definitions behind all those terms. I’m disappointed to learn that biodegradable food packaging can leave toxic residues – bleh.

    I’d been wondering if the compostable plastic used at the People’s Food Co-op required industrial facilities, but I put one in my backyard composter and it disappeared pretty quickly!

  8. Valerie Jenner on 31 Aug 2010 at 8:34 am #

    Tricia,

    The PLA at the co-op is completely compostable, no worries. It is also vetted for fair trade as well. It was part of our zero waste pilot. Glad to hear it worked in the home compost.

    Jeremy,
    Wonder how I got you confused, thanks for reading the blog.

  9. Jumbalaya on 27 Dec 2010 at 1:13 am #

    Hello,

    We have a very small business and are trying to find biodegradeable packaging for our vegan, organic cookies and treats….any leads on actual products?

    Thanks!!!
    Jumba

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