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Has sustainability ever influenced your purchasing choices? If so, you join over 85% of global consumers who are prioritizing buying greener goods over unsustainable options.
One of the most common ways to identify if a product or its packaging is environmentally-friendly is by looking out for symbols on packaging labels. These symbols can let you know how sustainable an item is, including not just well-known factors like whether the item is recyclable, but also more nuanced ones like whether it is biodegradable or compostable.
While you might assume biodegradable and compostable are the same thing, the reality is that there is an important difference between the two, especially where environmental impact is concerned.
In this article, find out the key difference between biodegradable and compostable packaging. Plus, learn why compostable packaging is more environmentally-friendly than its biodegradable equivalent.
When we think of something being compostable or biodegradable, we assume that it will naturally decompose over time. And while this is true to some extent, there is an important distinction between the two.
If a product is compostable, that means it will naturally degrade into organic matter. This process occurs at the same pace as most organic matter does, like food and lawn clippings. On average, organic matter and compostable products will decompose within a few days, weeks or months.
If a product is biodegradable, that means it could possibly degrade, depending on the context. Essentially, being biodegradable means that a product will break down as a result of being exposed to natural elements. This includes things like water, bacteria or fungi which consume or destroy the product’s matter.
However, unlike compostable products, biodegradable products can take much longer to break down, with some materials needing up to thousands of years to biodegrade. This means that theoretically just about everything is biodegradable to some level, especially if left alone in an open environment like a landfill.
Here are just some examples of the difference in decomposition times among compostable and biodegradable household goods:
Typical time needed to decompose:
Organic food waste: 2-5 weeks
Compostable paper grocery bag: 1 month
Biodegradable plastic grocery bag: 5-10 years
Compostable packaging peanuts: Several minutes (when exposed to moisture)
Polystyrene-based packaging peanuts: 400-500 years
Compostable paper straw: 2 months
Plastic straw: 200 years
Compostable cardboard: 2 months
Bubble-lined wrap: 500+ years
Plastic bottle: 400-500 years
Glass bottle: 4,000 – 1,000,000 years
Given the difference in breakdown times, compostable packaging is by far better for the environment than biodegradable alternatives. In fact, many used products that are biodegradable can take up to thousands of years to properly degrade in a landfill.
And while being biodegradable might prevent a product from needing to be incinerated, which is a heavy polluter, emerging evidence from North Carolina State University shows that biodegradables may also release harmful greenhouse gasses in landfills. Compare this to compostables, which decompose quickly without leaving any toxic waste behind.
While innovative solutions are making their way into the market, compostability is not always achievable for trickier items, like plastic goods. In this situation, choosing a recyclable option over a single-use, biodegradable alternative is a great way to limit the quantity and flow of waste pollution.
Awareness of this difference is growing among the public, with some environmental groups labeling biodegradability as ‘greenwashing’ – where an organization makes a misleading claim about a product’s environmental sustainability.
Businesses are strongly affected by changes in our environment. A 2019 report estimated that if global temperatures were to increase by 4.5ºC, the US economy would incur losses of up to $224 billion by 2100. This would also affect emerging economies like India, consequently staggering the global economy and making business as we know it now much harder and expensive to operate.
And while 2100 may seem beyond most of our lifetimes, these effects are already well in motion as many businesses are starting to see negative economic damage caused by environmental disruption.
But change can happen. Businesses can unlock the benefits of sustainable packaging by opting for recyclable materials in their product and packaging, helping to reduce how much waste is produced by consumers. When a product or its packaging cannot be recycled, turning to compostable packaging is an excellent solution.
The actions a business takes now can have significant effects on the brand’s reputation and image. This is because consumers are becoming not just more selective in their buying habits, but also more vocal about the brands they use and advocate for. Being aware of these environmental issues and selecting sustainable materials is an important step to earning your customer’s respect and avoiding ‘green-washing’, pivotal if a business wants to thrive in a competitive market.
While many businesses want to find quality, sustainable packaging, knowing how to get started can feel complicated, especially when you have challenges like being aware of the differences between compostability and biodegradability to think about. If you are looking to easily adopt sustainable packaging for your business, consider Crownhill Packaging.
At Crownhill Packaging, we are dedicated to developing and sourcing innovative solutions for our clients, and our range of quality, sustainable packaging is no exception to this. To learn more about what environmentally-responsible packaging products and solutions we can offer you, contact our team today.