Achieving Packaging Sustainability with Biodegradable vs. Compostable

September 2, 2020

Today’s Compostable Reality

We see bags of snacks on the store shelf flaunting compostable film packaging. Consumers think, “Wow this is great! By choosing this product with sustainable packaging, I’m doing my part to slow the global plastic waste problem."

The Reality is, there are about 185 cities in the U.S. that do curbside pickup of food waste for composting. Fewer than half of those accept today’s commercialized compostable packaging.

Compostability

If consumers knew the compostable package they purchased does not truly compost well in available municipal and personal composting systems, they might very well view the film and brand as greenwashing. PLA is the prevalent compostable packaging film from a limited list, and while it is ASTM D6400 certified compostable, it will not break down for the home composter, and unless landfill conditions are perfect, the packaging material could last just as long as the fossil fuel comparison.

Compostable Future

So what does the future hold for compostable films? In the U.S., a broken recycling system and lack of compostable infrastructure are holding back adoption and progress. Still, this is slowly starting to change, driven by ambitious sustainable packaging and waste diversion initiatives from big brands and retailers set for achievement by 2025.

Positively, raw material suppliers have listened to industry, consumer and municipality asks for compostable packaging that can perform through the supply chain and break down effectively in private composting systems.

In fact, a new PHA bio-polymer made from 100% renewable and sustainable feedstocks will be available to the supply chain soon. The PHA breaks down easily in both backyard and commercial composting facilities and can be blended into other bio-polymers to make them more effective at composting. Rest assured that other effective bio-polymers are on the horizon to meet the growing demand and need for eco-friendly plastics.

Alternatives to Compostable Pouches

With few compostable options that suit current infrastructure fragmentation and limited consumer access, there are pouch material considerations beyond compostability that can nonetheless help brands achieve their 2025 sustainable packaging goals:

  • Recycle-ready store drop-off film options are available. One challenge with store drop is consumer accountability. The burden is on the product user to properly prepare the film and drop it off at one of the 18,000+ drop-off sites in the U.S. How2Recycle has released a report on the Future of Store Drop-Off Recyclability.
  • Landfill biodegradable films will be available from Outlook Group in late 2020. These biodegradable pouch materials go in the normal waste stream and rapidly break down to methane gas in landfills. This is a viable, sustainable material option that can be successful amidst today’s packaging waste collection infrastructure. The methane can be used as an alternative fuel source. Dane County, Wisconsin, installed a methane recovery system at their landfill site to help power vehicles.

Author:
Tim Traub
Business Development Manager
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