By Annie Wang, Staff Writer, Startup CPG
Does it sometimes feel like every apple and orange in the grocery store is covered in plastic? Or what about these individually wrapped bananas?
Whether we like it or not, single-use packaging is a huge part of our current economy. As compostable packaging technology has improved over the years, more brands are looking towards this packaging solution to reduce their carbon footprint.
But not all compostable packages are made the same. Plus, when it comes to compostable packaging, myths abound. Read on for some myth busting action, questions to ask before using compostable packaging, and some tips and tricks.
🌱Compostable packaging starts to degrade on its own: Unlike Krook in Charles Dickens’ classic “Bleak House” who dies via spontaneous combustion, compostable packaging does not spontaneously begin to degrade on the shelf. Btw*: spontaneous combustion is also a myth, thank you History Channel.*
Compostable packaging requires a combination of environmental conditions to begin degrading. “Composting requires heat, moisture, oxygen, a good mix of greens/brown feedstock, and microorganisms,” says Justin Johanson from Elevate Packaging, a supplier of compostable packaging. Johanson suggests storing your compostable packaging in a “cool, dry place, out of direct sunlight – probably the same type of storage you’d already be interested in to preserve your product.”
♻️Biodegradable vs Compostable: Contrary to popular belief, the terms compostable and biodegradable are not interchangeable. While the term biodegradable encompasses compostable materials, the key difference between the terms compostable and biodegradable are how these materials break down. Both bioplastics and compostable plastics can be broken down by microbes. However, the compostable materials break down into carbon dioxide, water, and other inorganic materials that do not create toxins. Compostable materials can be used in compost. Certified compostable materials will decompose in specific conditions in a specific period of time while biodegradable packaging does not have a fixed amount of time within which it will break down.
🌿Bioplastic is the same as biodegradable or compostable plastic: A.K.A. bio-based plastics, are made from at least 20% renewable feedstocks. They include conventional plastics, biodegradable and compostable plastics, or biodegradable (but not compostable) plastics.
🎭Compostable materials are just as bad as plastic due to lack of compost facilities.: The answer here is nuanced. There is both not enough infrastructure to properly dispose of compostable packaging which means oftentimes compostable packaging goes to landfill. Compostable packaging that goes to landfill is unable to breakdown the way it’s meant to since landfills lack the necessary environmental conditions that allow this packaging to reach its ultimate end — compost. As such, compostable packaging that goes to landfill will pollute the environment the same as its plastic counterparts. This often discourages folks from using compostable packaging.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Compostable and biodegradable packages that are made from responsibly sourced biobased materials instead of petroleum also have a lower environmental impact than plastics made from petroleum. In the end, it’s important to understand what end-of-life packaging infrastructure is most available to your and your customers and make your packaging decisions accordingly.
Questions to Ask
There’s no point in switching to compostable packaging if that packaging is actually just a greenwashed plastic bag. So, how can you tell what’s truly compostable from what’s not? When diving into the compostable packaging ball pit, Johanson shares some questions to consider.
🧪How do you know your packaging is compostable?: Here, Johanson recommends ensuring the compostable packaging supplier you’re vetting reference third party testing. “They may not be able to provide the lab results, but they are legally required to have evidence of it for the FTC,” says Johanson, “you want to affirm that, not necessarily review the results yourself.”
📏What standards does this package meet or certifications do you have for this packaging?: Some certification bodies that Johanson recommends include ASTM, BPI, CMA, TUV. Elevate Packaging uses ASTM standards. “There are plenty of correct answers a packaging company could give you, but it’s important to know what standards or certifications they use.”
🌳Is the entire package compostable? Are there any parts of the package that are not compostable?
📄What instructions should I give my customers about how/where to compost?
⚖️Check your states’ guidelines and laws regarding using and labeling compostable packaging.: Not stated from Johanson, but important all the same, states like California are stricter when it comes to what materials can be used that are labeled as compostable. Be sure to check with your state’s guidelines and laws when it comes to labeling and using compostable packaging.
Tips for Using Compostable Packaging
Now that you’re fully bought in, how do you go about actually implementing your compostable packaging dreams? Both Drew Lederman, Founder & CEO of Resist Nutrition and Jake Hebert, Director of the One Step Closer (OSC) sustainable and natural products trade organization, shared some tips on using compostable packaging.
📦Ask your manufacturer if they have recommendations for compostable packaging suppliers.
⏱️What is the lead time for order and printing custom compostable packaging?: Lederman recommends (especially for roll stock) to add more time to any estimate you get as the only supplier, from their experience, is overseas.
🎒Test it in the Wild: One thing that Lederman found useful in ensuring the quality of Resist Nutrition’s protein bars in the compostable packaging was to first test out the product in the new packaging through everyday scenarios. “I would really recommend putting it in your bag and shaking it around or carrying it around with you for a week and seeing how it does. Because if it is ripping, you want to tell your manufacturer immediately and make sure that that doesn’t happen.”
In addition to testing out the product in the wild, Hebert recommends testing the packaging throughout your entire supply chain. “They have to undergo everything that the package is going to be exposed to its normal course of business,” says Hebert. “If you’re a rice company, and you’re packaging in Southeast Asia … the rice [will] sit on container for 45 days to come to the West Coast. That’s gonna be pretty harsh environment or for any package to kind of withstand. So you really have to understand what the package is going to be exposed to.”
⚙️Test it on Machinery: Though Lederman was already working with a manufacturer that had experience working with compostable packaging roll stock, the company still had issues with tearing while testing the material on their coman’s equipment. As such, she recommends always testing the packaging first before committing to huge quantities of packaging.
♦️Test in Technicolor: Before printing your beautiful designs on tens of thousands of feet of packaging, Lederman says brands should make sure the colors for the designs, once printed, match the colors in their original designs. “We found that even though our proofs matched our colors perfectly, the final print on the compostable film was noticeably lighter,” says Lederman. “I really recommend working with your designer to adjust the colors accordingly.”
While compostable packaging is not always cut and dry, there is a lot of potential to perform better as businesses for our customers, our products, and the planet. If you’re really dedicated to using compostable packaging, Johanson leaves us with some words of encouragement. “Embrace the fact that you’re challenging the supply-chain status quo and keep an open mind about how you can structure your business model.”