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The ‘Break Down’ on Compostable and Biodegradable Packaging

Very often we have no choice but to buy food that is over-packaged. Thankfully, we sometimes have a choice between compostable and biodegradable packaging.

Both are better for the environment than a lot of alternatives, but it’s not always clear which is best. Here’s some help to clear things up.

Why Do We Need All This Packaging in the First Place?

You can find excess packaging on everything from a cucumber to a flat screen television. In some cases, packaging is desirable – the contents may be liquid or sterilised, or it may help extend its shelf life. In other cases, excess packaging seems to be little more than an advertising platform.

Every layer of packaging that lies between the product and the consumer is a layer that needs to be disposed of. The more waste we generate, the more land we need for landfills. And what if those landfills are home to products that take decades to break down?

That leaves us requiring a home for the packaging far after the product was consumed. Some packaging has harmful chemicals that leach into the soil at the landfill and can put our water supply at risk.

Recyclable packaging could be a solution. But sometimes the amount of energy required for recycling may not be viable. Even if a material is easy to recycle, it’s not guaranteed that it can be used in a new product. Not to mention that some local areas have limited or no recycling programmes easily available.

One solution is the use of compostable or biodegradable packaging.

What’s the Difference?

Compostable packaging breaks down in a home compost pile or a commercial composting facility. It forms decayed organic substances that can be used as a fertiliser, benefiting the soil. This generally takes a few months, but how long the process takes and what conditions are required can differ. There are strict criteria used to certify packaging as compostable in the UK.

Biodegradable packaging also breaks down over time. It will completely return to nature in a comparatively short amount of time. It doesn’t need special conditions, but it also doesn’t necessarily benefit the soil.

It’s how you plan to dispose of it, that makes the real difference. Biodegradable packaging makes no claim to benefit the soil. So there’s no reason to go to great lengths to do more than recycle as you usually do. Compostable packaging requires composting conditions for it to impart benefits to the soil. If you don’t compost, the benefits of compostable packaging are largely lost.

Which is Better?

Quite simply, there isn’t really a ‘better’ option. It depends largely on where you live and the recycling facilities you have access to.

On one hand, we have biodegradable packaging that breaks down quickly and isn’t intended to improve the soil. On the other, we have compostable packaging that needs to be composted to break down and benefit the soil. Neither will hang around for hundreds of years in landfill or in the sea, which is already a good start!

Finally, it’s important not to get ‘greenwashed’ by recycling claims. Recyclable, biodegradable and compostable  packaging all sound like more environmentally friendly options. But not all claims apply to all situations, and sometimes it takes a bit of research to figure out. Don’t be afraid to ask about the packaging on your favourite products – perhaps some of it could be avoided altogether.

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