What’s the Difference Between Recyclable and Compostable Packaging?

What’s the Difference Between Recyclable and Compostable Packaging?

Posted on Feb 15th 2023

If you’re interested in  sustainable packaging and reducing your brand’s environmental impact, you’re likely familiar with two common, eco-friendly practices: recycling and composting. Both are end of life scenarios that divert from the landfill. Are you finding yourself choosing between recyclable packaging and compostable packaging? Or have you opted for packaging that is both recyclable and compostable, and want to educate your customers on the best end of life option for your packaging. This blog post breaks down the difference between recycling and composting, and explains why sustainable packaging solutions should be designed for recyclability, not composability. 

The Definitions of Recycling and Composting

What is Recycling?

Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. 

It is important to note that, currently, materials are not always recycled back into themselves. Some materials, including paper and plastic, experience quality degradation when they are recycled, so they are made into something with a lower value. Currently, a lot of plastic is actually "downcycled" into more durable items such as park benches and composite lumber. While the process of downcycling is better than nothing, it is not yet the ideal ultimate goal of recycling. 

What is Composting?

Composting is the process of materials breaking down without producing toxic residue. 

While "organic" materials - food waste and yard waste - are inherently compostable, bioplastics must pass specific tests in order to be deemed compostable. Specifically, 90% of the material must not remain after 180 day, and the resulting material must be below certain ecotoxicity and regulated metal constraints. 

Additionally, while paper and corrugate is inherently compostable, they do sometimes contain toxins that can accumulate in compost. Composting is often described as things "going away" or "becoming worm food" or "adding nutrients to the soil." It is important, however, to note that while this is true of food and yard waste, it isn't necessarily true when packaging is being composted. 

The Difference Between Compostable and Biodegradable

Biodegradable packaging means something can degrade from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and algae. 

In and of itself, the term biodegradable makes no claims as to the amount of time needed for degradation, or the attributes of the end product. 

Something can be biodegradable, but take years to biodegrade and therefore would not be industrially compostable. Additionally, there are things (including most compostable bioplastics) that would compost in a controlled, industrial environment but would not biodegrade rapidly in a natural landscape. 

Examples of the difference between compostable and biodegradable include: 

  • A large beam of untreated wood: Non compostable, but will biodegradable over the course of many years. Even though wood takes a long time to biodegrade, it comes directly from nature and is typically not a material that generates significant concern as litter.
  • EcoProducts PLA cold cup: Industrially compostable, but not biodegradable in nature. These cups should not end up as litter. As litter or in a landfill, they will behave similarly to other plastics.
  • Hemp Twine: Accepted at only a handful of composting facilities (hemp can take more than 90 days to decompose and has antimicrobial properties that may hinder the chemistry of composting) but readily biodegradable and are not a material we generally worry about if it were to end up as litter.
  • Cardboard box: Compostable (though it should be recycled and not composted if it is clean) and readily biodegradable.
  • Compostable Poly Mailer: Compostable (as long as it is either BPI Certified or CMA Certified) but unlikely to readily biodegradability. No compostable poly mailers currently on the market have passed marine biodegradability ASTM testing.

Throughout our site, EcoEnclose uses the term "Naturally Biodegradable" to describe environmentally friendly packaging that will readily biodegrade in nature, including in the ocean. Companies seeking packaging that does not contribute to litter or ocean pollution should seek out these naturally biodegradable packaging solutions.

When to Compost, When to Recycle

Ideally, all organic matter - food waste, grass clippings, fallen leaves, weeds, manure, etc - would be composted. By composting these nutrient dense items, they (1) do not end up in the landfill where they will slowly degrade, releasing methane gas into the environment and leaching into groundwater and (2) build soil amendment that can help make our lands healthier, more biodiverse and more carbon sequestering.  

Ideally, everything else - packaging, toys, clothing, electronics, cars, etc - would be designed to be recycled. Environmental experts have established a clear hierarchy of waste for non-organic items. 

Hierarchy of Waste Chart

In this end-of-life hierarchy, recycling is the best ecological option, after source reduction and reuse. Why is it better than composting and waste-to-energy? Because recycling most efficiently turns an existing material back into something useful, extending the useful life of those raw materials and reducing the need for natural resources to otherwise be extracted.

Additionally, composting of non-organic materials creates a high risk of introducing contaminants into our soil and waterways. Many things that are now being designed to be composted - such as packaging, shoes, clothing, phone cases - contain a myriad of ink, adhesives, toxins, chemicals and microplastics. These contaminants get into compost, which (1) make it harder for composting facilities to sell their output and (2) seeps into our lands, soils and waterways. 

Finally, even if a non-organic item can be 100% free of contaminants, inks, adhesives and other toxins, it still does not bring any valuable nutrients into compost. Industrial composters find that things like packaging make their output "wetter" and less nutrient dense, and again - harder to sell. 

Learn more about the challenges composters are facing and why recent trends reinforce how important it is to keep most packaging out of compost bins.

Designing Your Ecommerce Packaging for Recycling

With this in mind, EcoEnclose (along with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and Canopy) strongly recommend that you design your packaging for recyclability and not compostability.

We recognize that the majority of companies seeking "compostable" packaging solutions are actually focused on ensuring their packaging does not contribute to litter or ocean plastic pollution.

If that is you, we strongly recommend looking for  eco-friendly packaging that is recyclable and that will biodegrade in a natural environment. We encourage you to avoid all plastics - including compostable bioplastics - and stick with paper and other naturally biodegradable solutions.

Check out our Plastic Free Packaging Solutions to get started on your recyclable, naturally biodegradable ecommerce shipping strategy.

Additionally, we believe it is not enough for your packaging to be recyclable. Recycled content is a critical component of building a more circular packaging economy. Luckily, EcoEnclose has recycled shipping boxes and recycled paper packaging.

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