How sustainable is biodegradable compostable and recyclable packaging?
If there is one thing that biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable have in common, it is that they appeal to the environmentally-conscious audience. With the detrimental effects of environmental pollution being highlighted in the media, people are now more willing to pay more for eco-friendly products and packaging. But it does not stop there.
Do we, as consumers, really know the difference between the three terms?
They often get muddled up which results in less efficient waste disposal. Today we will explore how these terms differ as well as tackling how sustainable they are are.
1. What does ‘biodegradable’ mean?
The word “degradable” means that something breaks down. In the case of packaging, it often refers to plastics. The end goal is to not add to the pollution of materials that cannot be decomposed. Paper is a material that naturally biodegrades and is absorbed harmlessly into local eco-systems.
2. The advantages and disadvantages of biodegradable packaging
Biodegradable products are broken down by naturally-occurring bacteria and since most of the material does not require O2, there is no greenhouse release and the product simply breaks down in the soil. This leaves us with less waste to manage overall.
There are also some biodegradable items that have added chemicals that will make the plastic break down faster under certain conditions. An example would be breaking plastic through oxidation or more commonly known as “oxo-degradable plastic”.
A clear disadvantage for using biodegradable products is that they are expected to decompose in the landfill, however, landfills have oxygen-poor and dry conditions so rather than decomposing, the materials tend to stay relatively well preserved.
Another issue is when bioplastics end up in the ocean, they do not degrade simply because they are not designed to degrade in water. It is important to realize that any type of item or packaging- plastics, plant-based, fossil-based, degradable or non-degradable- should never be allowed to end up as waste in the ocean as it does not have the right environment to degrade or even be recycled.
3. What does ‘compostable’ mean?
Compostable products biodegrade, which means they break down quickly too. The key difference here is that they only break down under defined conditions that can support plant growth. According to ScienceLearn.org, a compostable product must meet specific criteria in terms of time, environmental conditions, and quality of compost produced.
To best dispose of a compostable item, bring it to a commercial compost or set up a compost area in your garden/backyard. Having a small compost in your house uses natural elements and manual turning to aerate and break down organic materials. For more information on creating backyard composts, click here.
4. The advantages and disadvantages of compostable packaging
You can think of compostable as a step up from biodegradable packaging as it both breaks down back to the environment, but compostable packaging has a guarantee that the materials do not produce toxins as they deteriorate (given they are 100% compostable). Other major benefits of compostable packaging are that it takes less carbon to produce, reduces the amount of waste sent to the landfills and it provides the earth with life-promoting nutrients.
There are some items labeled ‘compostable’ but has to be brought to a centralized composting facility where the compost is guaranteed to reach high temperatures. On the flip side, if your local area’s disposal facility is not equipped to handle special requirements of compostable items, you can set up a home compost by yourself, however, the items that can be 100% composted are limited. Business Waste revealed that 97% of UK households do not own a backyard compost, making it unrealistic for items to decompose. Ultimately, the compostable items end up as general waste.
What happens if you add them to the recycling pile? if compostable packaging is added to the recycling stream, it can contaminate all the other materials, meaning that the whole batch cannot be recycled.
5. What does recyclable mean
As the more popular term between the three, many understand that recyclable items are those that can be collected, sorted, reprocessed, and ultimately reused in manufacturing or making another item. However, the recyclability of each item varies locally depending on the available recycling facilities in your area.
6. The advantage and disadvantage of recyclable packages
The process of recycling reduces the need to grow, harvest, or extract new raw materials from the Earth, hence the term ‘circular economy’. Also since new material is not made, the focus is on the used packaging. With this method comes lower processing power and carbon emissions than when new packaging is made.
As a disadvantage, the recycle logo can be confusing and often misleading as there are factors that need to be considered before ultimately throwing away your items. Some companies would add the recycling logo to signify that the product is made out of recycled material, but cannot be recycled again because of its design. So, when something unrecyclable is put in the recycling pile, it contaminates the recycling stream in facilities and it ends up causing the systems time and money sorting through piles of unrecyclable items.
Still confused? Here is a helpful visual guide which goes through UK’s top 18 commonly used recycling symbols
7. What is the better option?
According to Zero Waste Scotland, the basic premise of the waste hierarchy prioritises having minimal waste to manage. While biopdegradable and compostable packaging is filled with promises for environmental consciousness, it is not quite as effecient as recycling.
There is an abundance of manufacturers that source from sustainable forests and can create a circular loop as recyclable packaging can be turned into new things without needing to create completely new resources. The term 'circular loop' here is an important takeaway as it refers to using resources that is already out there as many times as possible, to prevent sourcing new materials. This term goes hand in hand with reusing as much material as possible, whether we are consumers reusing grocery bags, or business owners sourcing packaging.
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