What's the Difference Between Biodegradable, Oxo-Degradable, Compostable and Home Compostable Packaging?
Plastic pollution is now considered one of the most pressing environmental issues globally, with the level of production and use of disposable plastic products far outweighing the world's ability to deal with them.
"Of 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic we’ve thrown away since we started mass-producing it in the 1950s, just 600 million tonnes has been recycled." – Science Advances
It's no surprise then, that packaging manufacturers are now producing more options aside from plastic packaging, and we see more and more brands opting to choose alternative solutions in order to become more sustainable.
But to a consumer, the terms used by brands to describe their packaging can be confusing to say the least (when we first started our plastic free coffee journey we were very overwhelmed!).
How do we know what options are truly sustainable? We're here to dissect the different terms out there to help you, hopefully, understand and make wiser choices.
Biodegradation is a naturally-occurring process, and by definition, a substance or object is biodegradable if it is "capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms". Some things are naturally biodegradable, such as food and plants, whilst other objects can break down into harmful gases or substances.
The key with biodegradable packaging is: what exactly is it made of? Technically speaking, most things can biodegrade. But whilst organic waste may take around 1 - 6 months to biodegrade, other materials on the other hand, take a very, very, very long time, if at all.
"A recent study by the University of Plymouth’s international marine litter research unit found biodegradable plastic bags were largely undamaged and still able to carry shopping three years after being buried in soil or left in sea water." – BBC
With biodegradable plastic packaging now becoming a more popular replacement to general plastic, it is important to note that this does not necessarily mean it is a more sustainable option, nor will it break down into natural counterparts. Most likely than not, if it is biodegrading, its just breaking down into smaller pieces.
Oxo-degradable plastics are plastic materials that include additives, which allow them to fragment through oxidation. Through this process, plastics become micro-fragments or turn into chemical decomposition. This type of packaging is usually made from normal plastic with added additives.
According to European Bioplastics, "claims of “oxo-degradability” might sound appealing, yet, they are misleading as they cannot be verified due to the absence of a standard specification i.e. an explicit set of requirements to be satisfied by the product."
What's more, in 2017, over 150 organizations worldwide called for the ban of oxo-degradable plastic packaging worldwide, and it's not hard to see why. These types of plastics can quickly fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, called micro-plastics, but do not break down at the molecular or polymer level, resulting in harmful micro-plastics being left in the environment indefinitely.
When something is compostable, this means that it is capable of disintegrating into natural components in a compost environment, usually soil, leaving behind no toxicity. This type of packaging is generally certified according to the EU composting standard EN 13432.
One important thing to note, is that most packaging labelled as "compostable" require very specific environments to break down, such as very high heat for a specific duration of time. Because of this, the requirements for this type of packaging to disintegrate naturally into the environment are much higher, and therefore cannot be composted in your garden.
In this case, compostable packaging is only a sustainable option if your local government or neighbourhood have an accessible industrial composting facility. Otherwise it can end up in a landfill and remain intact for a very long period of time, without disintegrating.
If packaging is labelled as home compostable, this means it can be composted as above, but in a home composting bin where it will decompose into healthy soil. This type of packaging requires a compost environment that is much lower in terms of temperature and time, which means it is more accessible and attainable. Usually, the certification standard for home compostability is defined by the OK compost HOME conformity mark by TÜV AUSTRIA.
Of course, this type of packaging requires consumers to own a home compost bin, however, if this is not within access, small amounts of home compostable packaging can be added to your food waste bin.
"40% of UK households are home composters or have access to a shared compost heap or kerbside food waste collection." – DabbaDrop
According to One Green Planet, home composting is one of the greenest things you can do as a homeowner, and what better way to help reduce plastic pollution and waste in general, whilst creating nutrient-rich soil. There are also several other benefits to home composting, such as lowering your carbon footprint through reducing methane emissions from landfills.
We hope this guide has been helpful in clearing up the different terms out there, and increased awareness of what companies really mean when they market their products using these terms. Hopefully this will allow you as the consumer to have a better understanding and make better choices!
If you love coffee and want to reduce your plastic footprint, check out our selection of ethically sourced specialty coffees at Alpaca Coffee in completely sustainable, plastic-free, and compostable packaging.