Looking for Compostable Packaging?
Read This First.
As citizens, brands, consumers, and policymakers become more conscious of waste and pollution, many (including us!) are working hard to figure out what “optimal” packaging looks like from the planet's perspective and its inhabitants' health.
Over the past few years, the recycling industry has hit some significant roadblocks - the most notable being the China Sword policy implemented in 2018 which severely restricted what recycled inputs China would be willing to purchase. This, coupled with dubious marketing practices by the fossil fuel industry to perpetuate the myth that all plastics are recyclable when only PE and PET are very readily recyclable in the US, has cast doubt on recycling broadly.
Within this broader context, it isn’t surprising that the idea of “compostable” has developed a bit of a halo around it. Brands and consumers have this innate sense that compostable packaging might be a silver-bullet solution to curing all of the evils of packaging, the challenges of recyclability, and plastic packaging in particular. We often see misleading branding copy like “this compostable packaging will disappear” or “compost me so I can become worm food” that spreads this way of thinking.
EcoEnclose is in a unique position in the world of packaging providers as we can design and develop any type of packaging. We can create compostable mailers, recyclable mailers, degradable mailers, and dissolvable mailers with any existing or innovative new material. The only real guardrail we have in designing our packaging is our sustainability vision and framework: Does this new potential packaging solution bring us closer to our vision for sustainability and circularity?
Every year, we use this lens to research and understand the pros and cons of designing packaging for compostability. If our analysis leads to a new conclusion that compostable packaging would lead to positive environmental progress, we would quickly begin offering compostable mailing solutions.
However, our research has always led to the same conclusion - most packaging should not be designed to be composted. Instead, most packaging should be designed to be readily recycled. And while we need to invest in improving this nation’s recycling infrastructure and supply chain, the current foundation is strong for PE, PET, paper, corrugate, aluminum, and (in some regions) glass.
This year, this decision and its issues have hit remarkably close to home for us at EcoEnclose.
We’ve watched packaging wreak havoc on Colorado’s primary industrial composting facility for the past six months, leading them to make the drastic decision last month to accept food and yard waste only going forward.
This means Coloradoans can no longer compost paper towels, tissue, coffee filters, etc. While this is a significant shift for us regionally, it is a nationwide trend for early-adopter composting communities that made forays into accepting packaging (the vast majority of composters nationwide have never accepted packaging). Oregon composters banned all bioplastics in 2019, citing how problematic compostable plastics have been for them.
Programs in California, Seattle, and Vermont are also starting to restrict collections of compostable organic materials to food scraps and yard trimmings only.
Eight Reasons to Avoid Designing for Compostability
click to learn more
Recycling is more circular than composting. It's the preferred end-of-life for most packaging.
Many brands, households, and cities have set “zero waste” or “landfill diversion” goals, focusing on minimizing the material they send to the landfill. These are great goals. It is so vital that we collectively reduce landfill waste for a few reasons:
- They are major GHG emitters and water polluters
- They lead to awful health and quality of life consequences for nearby communities, which are often communities of color
- Items sent to landfill are done and cannot be used again
- Some countries and states are running out of landfill space
But we can’t let a “landfill diversion” goal lead us to think that all landfill diversion is circular and therefore equal.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is one of the most prominent thought leaders in circularity. They have organized the concept of circularity under these principles:
- Circulate products and materials at their highest possible value
- Eliminate waste and pollution
- Regenerate nature
Applying this framework clarifies that there is a hierarchy to landfill diversion for packaging.
Reuse is optimal. Minimal resources are required to reuse packaging, and reuse means much of its initial value is left intact.
Recycling is the next most optimal: recycle an item back into itself or an equally high-value item wherever possible. This is because recycling most efficiently turns existing raw materials back into something valuable, extending the useful life of the raw materials and resources that went into their production and reducing the need for natural resources to be otherwise extracted for new items.
If neither is possible for an item or package, the next best choice is to convert packaging into compost or energy (waste-to-energy). Unfortunately, most compostable packaging degrades the value of the compost it helps to produce. Because of this, in many situations, waste-to-energy would be considered more circular than composting packaging.
Composting exists to be an ecological net positive waste stream for organic waste.
When food, yard, and other organic waste streams are landfilled, it all biodegrades anaerobically. This biodegradation leads to methane, a greenhouse gas with 80 times the warming power of CO2 over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.
About a quarter of our landfill bin is food waste, making landfills the country’s third largest emitter of methane.
When this organic waste is composted correctly and aerated (instead of landfilled), it produces little to no methane, resulting in a nutrient-rich humus that helps increase carbon levels and soil health.
Composting food waste, yard waste, certain types of manure, and other organic waste are among the few true environmental win-wins!
Any discussion about designing packaging for compostability should be rooted in this perspective - we need composting to allow organic waste to be recycled back into rich, healthy soil (versus turning organic waste into methane).
As people have tried to leverage this critical composting waste stream to become an outlet to “get rid of packaging,” we’re inadvertently creating many obstacles for composters. These challenges are making it more and more difficult for composting to do its primary job of turning organic waste into nutrient-rich humus.
Compostable packaging degrades the quality and health of the compost being produced.
Most Americans don’t have a nearby industrial composting facility. Because of this, many people point to access as the main challenge regarding compostable packaging.
This logic misses the most critical point - even fairly small volumes of compostable packaging lead to lower-quality compost, which is contaminated and very difficult to sell.
This creates two challenges. First, industrial composters that accept packaging have difficulty selling their output. When they lose this vital revenue stream, they can’t operate anymore. Second, the compost they do sell pollutes, rather than enriches, the soil it is amended to. This is because compostable packaging - certified or not - has a net negative impact on compost. Certified compostable packaging must prove its negative impact is under “accepted” limits in lab environments.
Let’s dive into certified compostability requirements to understand why.
ASTM D6400 is the standard specification for solid material biodegradation (by composting) required for the labeling of plastics designed to be aerobically composted in municipal or industrial facilities.
An item must demonstrate the following to pass ASTM D6400.
ASTM 6400 was developed in response to the FTC’s concerns about environmental claims related to biodegradation and compostability. As a response to these concerns, ASTM 6400 makes a lot of sense as it creates thresholds and rigor in an arena that had previously had none.
But passing ASTM 6400 has now become synonymous in people’s minds with the idea that an item simply “disappears” in soil or (even more inaccurately) nourishes and improves soil health.
A review of ASTM 6400 shows that it means the opposite. In a highly controlled environment that could never be replicated at home or in an industrial setting, most of an item must biodegrade or become significantly smaller. A detrimental impact on soil is acceptable if it is under a maximum threshold for that negative impact.
Specifically, 90% of an item must be smaller than 2mm (the remaining 10% can remain indefinitely), a portion of the organic carbon in an item must have been converted to CO2, plants can grow at least 90% as quickly when grown in soil with the resulting compost (the nutritional value of that plant is not tested at all), and toxic heavy metals can be present but not above a certain threshold. Unsurprisingly, the heavy metal thresholds in the US are much higher than in Europe.
Consider a compostable poly mailer in this context. It is likely made with PBAT and PLA and includes additives, inks, and adhesives. PBAT biodegrades very quickly. PLA biodegrades more slowly (which is why the PBAT is required to accelerate the overall biodegradation). Neither of these polymers adds any value to compost, and both make the output wetter and less nutrient dense. The additives, inks, and adhesives do not biodegrade and add some heavy metals to the output, but in low enough quantities to come in under the max thresholds set forth by ASTM 6400. As a result, the compost will likely no longer be considered organic and cannot be sold to organic farmers. And, if this type of compostable packaging is present in composting streams at even modest levels, the impact on the resulting compost is severely detrimental.
This type of chemical makeup is true of almost all compostable packaging because these additives, chemicals, inks, and adhesives are important to achieving the packaging’s functional requirements.
This is one reason why some of the earliest and most forward-thinking composters have since pulled the plug on compostable packaging - they care too much about their ability to accept food and yard waste, and produce an output that is carbon sequestering and soil-enriching.
In their explanation of why they have banned bioplastics, Oregon composters state that it often contains additives and chemicals that threaten human and environmental health. Specifically, “[compostable] consumer packaging may contain chemicals that can transfer into finished compost. From the compost, these chemicals may then transfer to ground and surface waters, be taken up by plants, and lead to negative health impacts…We want to keep our compost clean and safe for all.”
In explaining why they have banned packaging, Colorado’s A1 Organics states, “We can’t sell to organic farmers: Farmers often use compost in the production of certified organic foods. National standards prohibit the use of many different packaging materials when making compost used to grow crops certified as “USDA Organic.” Accepting packaging and service ware at our facilities hinders our ability to provide finished compost to organic farmers.”
Certified compostable packaging often doesn’t compost in real-life settings, further exacerbating contamination and quality loss issues.
The above section assumes that certified compostable packaging is composting successfully in a home or industrial environment.
This is not true.
Many studies have shown that the lab conditions in which plastic packaging compostability is tested are highly inadequate in recreating an actual home or industrial composting environment. As such, the results in those lab environments do little to replicate what happens in the real world.
When Oregon’s composters banned bioplastic, their first and most important reason for doing so was this: “They don’t always compost: Not all ‘certified’ compostable items will actually compost (break down) as fully or quickly as we need them to. This is because certification standards test compostability based on laboratory conditions. Those conditions are not always replicated in the real world (our facilities) which means that some “compostable” items don’t fully compost. The result is a finished compost that is contaminated with bits of partially degraded “compostable” material.”
Last year, a UK-based citizen science experiment - Big Compost Experiment - showed this same issue was also true in home composting. The study enrolled 1,648 citizens in performing home compost experiments to test the environmental performance of compostable plastics. The results show that of the compostable plastics tested under different home composting conditions, the majority did not fully disintegrate, including 60% of those certified “home compostable.” Read the complete study here.
Researchers concluded that “home composting is not an effective or environmentally beneficial waste processing method for biodegradable or compostable packaging in the UK.”
Research also says 60 percent of home ‘compostable’ plastic doesn’t fully break down, ending up in our soil.
Pictured, compostable plastic used to package the Guardian newspaper that has not entirely disintegrated in a compost bin. The package says on the front, 'This pack is wrapped in an entirely compostable material derived from potato starch.' The Guardian has already stopped using this material as a result of this study. [Source]
Because of this lab versus field disconnect, the Composters Manufacturers Alliance (CMA) was formed - bringing together industrial composters and manufacturers - to create a testing scheme that validates compostability in real-world composting environments. CMA testing and certification vets compostability by composting technique - windrows, in-vessel, or aerated static piles.
In any situation where composting certification is required, EcoEnclose strongly recommends turning to field testing with CMA versus BPI or other certification schemes that rely on labs versus field testing.
It is, however, essential to note that packaging can pass CMA’s compostability standards and still result in all of the issues outlined in the above section. CMA does a great job testing compostability under real-life conditions. But it still only requires that 90% of an item has biodegraded by weight under a certain period and does allow for additives, inks, adhesives, and chemicals to be transferred into the resulting compost.
Wishcomposting makes composting contamination even worse, and wishcomposting is harder to deal with than wishcycling.
We often talk about wishcycling - throwing random things in your recycling bin and hoping some get recycled. Wishcycling is highly problematic. It bogs down an already complex sorting process, can lead to the contamination of bales and slowdowns on remanufacturing equipment, and often (when caught in time) leads to rejections of entire bales of materials - all of which then get landfilled.
This same thing is happening in the home composting world. Unfortunately, composters and compost buyers are not as well equipped to deal with it all as recyclers and remanufacturers are.
A1 Organics, Colorado’s composting facility - which recently decided to stop allowing anything except for food and yard waste - found that over the past year, people have been throwing all sorts of things into the compost bin.
From produce stickers (which are not compostable) to single-use latex gloves to packaging peanuts - they saw so many items come through that either were not compostable (and likely tossed into the compost bin out of lack of knowledge or carelessness) or were compostable lookalikes, likely labeled as “biodegradable” or something similarly confusing.
Unfortunately, most composting facilities don’t have any infrastructure to effectively and efficiently sort the non-compostable waste out before it all gets pushed through to the composting pile.
Most of this inbound sorting is done by hand. And composters then struggle to sift contaminants out after the composting cycle is done. While some sorting and sifting are possible, small items will generally get through this screening. Additionally, sifting is expensive, slow going, and very difficult to warrant investments in if compost is sold at such low prices due to its overall quality issues.
According to A1 Organics, two reasons they are now only accepting food and yard waste include:
Contamination Impacts Resale Quality
In the fall, I purchased a load of A1 Organics compost for a pollinator garden. Unfortunately, I found it full of litter - everything from bottle caps to partially biodegraded bioplastics to glass shards, nerf bullets, and tiny shreds of candy wrappers.
My family tried to pick out every piece of litter, but I’m sure some remained.
And, of course, most compost is laid on massive fields or in public spaces and forest lands, where no one can be expected to hand pick litter out before soil is spread.
Compostability is not a cure for marine plastic pollution.
Rightfully, many people and brands are horrified by the plastic pollution crisis taking over the planet. It is tragic to think about how much plastic is floating in our oceans, infiltrating previously pristine rivers and forests, and being ingested by birds and marine life.
No eco-conscious business leader wants their packaging to contribute to pollution in this way, and many have started to consider compostable packaging to decrease this risk.
Some even look to plastic packaging labeled as “biodegradable” or “degradable” to address these issues.
Unfortunately, none of these genuinely biodegrade in a marine environment and are not the pathway to solving plastic pollution.
ASTM D6991 is an emerging standard that aims to test (again, in lab environments) whether a bioplastic will biodegrade in seawater. This a true step in the direction of understanding how materials will act in our oceans, but at the time of this resource being written, it is still not a standard we should assume renders a package “safe” in marine environments.
We strongly recommend that brands looking for packaging that will not contribute to plastic pollution stick with paper.
Paper is unique because it is curbside recyclable, which is the preferred end-of-life outcome. It is also compostable in all environments and naturally biodegrades relatively quickly in any natural environment.
If paper or any other natural fibers is not feasible for your use case, and tackling marine plastic pollution is critical, consider glass, aluminum, or rigid plastic packaging. These materials are not biodegradable but less likely than plastic film to leak into the natural environment and become litter.
Finally, where feasible, brands committed to solving ocean plastic pollution might consider using packaging made with certified “ocean bound” plastic. This approach may enable them to be part of the solution to the plastic crisis. Investing in ocean-bound plastic helps fund waste management and recycling infrastructure in developing nations struggling most to deal with the world’s plastic waste.
Plastics labeled as compostable, biodegradable, or degradable do not solve issues like marine plastic pollution and have been found to contribute to these issues in different ways.
If designing for compostability is truly critical for your product - try to use paper.
And if you require the functionality of bioplastic, work with CMA on certification and minimize all additives.
If your packaging is likely to be thrown away with a reasonable volume of compostable organic waste, then it is possible your packaging should be designed for compostability. In these situations, a compostable package might help ensure the entire contents of the container (the package and the food waste in it) get composted instead of landfilled.
Additionally, if your packaging must be less than 2” on either dimension, it can’t be designed for curbside recyclability. In this situation, it is possible that designing for composting may be optimal.
Such packaging includes takeaway containers, bags filled with soil and amendments, tiny vials measuring under 2” on a dimension, shred, etc.
Wherever possible, in these situations, look for uncoated paper packaging that can be curbside recycled and/or is naturally biodegradable.
However, recognize that paper packaging for the food industry is often coated with PFAs. Avoid PFAs. The addition of PFAs and other forever chemicals generally renders packaging non-compostable. In situations where this packaging does get composted, it severely damages the health of the soil this compost is amended to.
Supercalendered paper (such as glassine paper) can often provide grease protection without coatings.
If you find yourself in a situation where paper won’t work, and you need compostable plastic, aim for the following.
The Little Things
If you are pursuing home compostability, don’t solely rely on lab schemes, given that most home compostable certified packaging has been found not to compost in real-life settings.
After your packaging receives home compostability certification, do your research. Have 20+ friends home compost your packaging with your intended labels and any other additions, and review the results before making your packaging widely available.
Don’t focus solely on “passing the compostability test” and instead, commit to creating packaging that has as minimal a negative impact on resulting compost as possible.
Remember that any compostable packaging you put out into the world will likely end up in our soil. So one personal test is - would you feel entirely comfortable composting your packaging and putting the resulting compost on your vegetable garden soil? Check your gut before producing tens of thousands of those packages for your consumers to dispose of.
And finally, in these situations, recognize that most of your packaging will likely be landfilled.
Most consumers nationwide don’t have access to industrial composting facilities willing to accept compostable bioplastic, and most don’t have home compost. Those that home compost certainly don’t have the space to put a lot of compostable packaging in their setup properly.
With that in mind, whether your packaging is compostable, recyclable, or neither, don’t lose sight of the entire lifecycle of your materials.
Compostability and recyclability are solely about end-of-life, not lifecycle.
When brands design their packaging, most start with a focus on end-of-life, prioritizing packaging that won’t end up in the landfill.
This makes sense because end-of-life is the aspect of a packaging’s lifecycle that consumers must deal with. It is also the most visible packaging component, as we all see how much garbage our households and businesses create. We see litter on the side of the road or our shorelines. These images become a driving force in our decision-making.
Interestingly, however, end-of-life represents a fairly small amount of an item’s carbon footprint and environmental impact.
If you find yourself looking solely for “compostable packaging” or - if you’ve decided to skip compostable and instead seek “recyclable packaging” - don’t neglect the critical step of expanding your decision framework. Consider questions such as:
These questions are essential and can lead to much better and more nuanced choices than simply looking for packaging that meets your desired “end of life” criteria.
How does this play out in real life decision making?
Next Gen Paper
Bioplastic Made from Seaweed or Food Waste
By keeping this perspective in mind - that composting and recycling are purely related to end-of-life and end-of-life represents a fairly small percentage of an item's environmental impact - you begin to bring a more precise and impactful approach to your packaging decision-making process.