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Sustainable Packaging Supplies Servicing Supermarkets, Retailers, C-Stores, QSR & Foodservice

Biodegradable vs Compostable Packaging: The Difference & Which to Choose

Biodegradable and Compostable Are Not the Same Thing

We are frequently asked by our customers “What is the difference between biodegradable vs. compostable packaging?” While the two may seem to be the same thing, they are, in fact, two different things.

These two words, biodegradable and compostable, have surfaced more and more in our lexicon as people consider their role as stewards of their local environment and the planet. The topic? Sustainability and recycling. 

As populations grow and people have access to more convenience items, such as from pre-packaged foodservice providers, the amount of waste increases. The majority of waste in landfills and of the plastic in our oceans comes from food waste and single-use food packaging.

As retailers and manufacturers rush to solve this problem, new sustainable food packaging solutions, including biodegradable and compostable single-use straws, have been innovated to meet increasing demands. One of the factors manufacturers and retailers consider when developing new products is the decision between biodegradable and compostable packaging.

Biodegradable Packaging

Let’s start with biodegradable. For packaging to be labeled as biodegradable, it must be able to turn into organic matter. Biodegradable food packaging will break down into chiefly innocuous remains. Biodegradable packaging is often from plant-based, animal-based, or natural mineral-based organic materials. Think: if it comes from nature, it is likely biodegradable.

Biodegradable packaging materials will decompose when acted upon by other naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae which can eventually consume the material. 

Depending upon the material used and the process used during manufacturing, biodegradable packaging will break down at varying rates. Although the actual time to degrade is not standardly defined, biodegradable products are broken in way less time than non-biodegradable products, such as plastics. 

Compostable Packaging

Compostable food packaging will break down into natural elements in a composting environment. Compostable food packaging, such as bagasse bags, causes no harm to the environment and the breakdown process is typically in less than ninety days – even in a home composting bin.

During composting, compostable food packaging will yield CO2, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass. Just like other compostable materials, it will leave behind zero toxic residues.

What is the Biodegradable vs. Compostable Packaging?

While their definitions are very similar, there are important differences. And, while all compostable packaging material is biodegradable, not all biodegradable packaging material is compostable. 

How Long to Breakdown Biodegradable vs. Compostable Packaging?

Generally, biodegradable packaging breaks down faster than non-biodegradable packaging, typically within 3 – 6 months, compared to years or even centuries.  

For biodegradable packaging to lessen its environmental impact, it must be disposed of properly in environments that regulate temperature, moisture, and air levels.

Compostable packaging can be broken down in just a few months, and often in less than ninety days. Composting can be done at a specific facility or home, in specialized composting bins.

The Right Environment for Biodegradable vs. Compostable Packaging

While the breakdown of biodegradable packaging is dependent on the packaging being exposed to the right amount of moisture and temperature, compostable packaging will break down easily regardless of environmental factors. This makes it easy for home composting as well as a specialized composting facility to manage.

Biodegradable vs. Compostable Packaging Residue

One main differentiator is that biodegradable packaging breaks down into a few natural elements including metal residue, while compostable packaging leaves behind one single organic material, called humus, which can be used as fertilizer. The composting process releases valuable nutrients into the soil, perfect for feeding plants and trees.

Is Plastic Biodegradable?

Almost everything is biodegradable, even some plastics. However, the time it takes for different biodegradable packaging to break down can vary widely, including potentially centuries, as is the case with plastics.

Plant-based plastics are often labeled as biodegradable. While they are designed to break down more easily than regular plastic and be safer for the environment, plant-based plastics still require the right environmental factors. Left without them, they might take just as long as regular plastic to break down. 

So then, is plastic compostable?  No, to be compostable it would have to break down rapidly and be consumed by biological processes to leave behind no final residue or toxins. Plastic is not compostable.

Why is it Important to Know the Difference Between Biodegradable vs. Compostable Packaging?

For consumers and foodservice businesses that are striving to be as eco-friendly as possible, leaning towards compostable packaging has major added benefits over some that are labeled as biodegradable.

Recalling that biodegradable packaging is made from materials that break down and decompose in the environment over some time, compostable packaging is made from organic matter which breaks down completely, leaving behind beneficial fertilizer for the soil. 

Unlike biodegradable packaging, compostable packaging won’t leave behind toxic residue because it’s already organic. For brands that are seeking to align with consumers’ preferences for eco-friendly food packaging, compostable is the way to go in most cases.

How Foodservices Retailers Can Help

Choose Biodegradable and Compostable Food Packaging

The move towards more eco-friendly biodegradable and compostable packaging for food is a great development for mankind and our environment. Biodegradable and compostable packaging both have the potential to be the solution to our world’s waste problem, but only when the packaging is processed correctly after its useful life is over.

As the number of take-out and home delivery orders from quick services restaurants grows, using biodegradable and compostable food containers, like clamshell containers that also are sturdy and travel extremely well, is a great start and provides a great customer experience.

Help Your Customers Dispose of their Food Packaging

For in-store dining, be sure to provide bins for compostable items, recyclable items, and everything else. Provide symbols on your packaging so that customers know which is which. Use signage or print on your packaging “Please compost this packaging!”

Unfortunately, consumers often throw away biodegradable and compostable packaging in their home trash without sorting it correctly. And, while these packaging materials are designed to break down, if the landfill they end up in does not offer the correct environment (oxygen, light, moisture, bacteria, etc.) they will not break down as designed. Without oxygen, the process of decomposing produces methane instead. 

For to-go orders and other foodservice retail packaging, be sure to print on the packaging the correct way for the packaging to be disposed of so that consumers will be prompted to do so.

Talk to Servous About Biodegradable vs. Compostable Packaging for Your Foodservice Business 

At Servous, we have a complete line of biodegradable and compostable food packaging products that are also sustainable and renewable. From our selection of biodegradable or compostable straws to our food containers, trays, cups and bags, the experts at Servous can help you assemble the right choices for your business and within your budget. Contact us today to speak with one of our experts so we can help you meet your sustainability goals and be sure to ask about our packaging branding customization!

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