Compostable vs biodegradable vs recyclable packaging

Compostable vs biodegradable vs recyclable packaging

More brands are embracing new types of packaging which are supposedly environmentally friendly and sustainable. But with increased packaging options comes greater confusion about how to handle packaging waste.

What's the difference between compostable, recyclable and biodegradable packaging and what do we do with it?

Let's break it down…

Compostable

Compostable products (also known as plastic-free packaging) break down into nutrient rich soil so that they can be used as compost. Sounds great, right? Well, there are two types of compostable packaging and they must be handled differently.
 
Industrially compostable products need to go to specialist sites to be handled. This is because certain heat and moisture conditions are required to break the product down. The majority of local authorities will not accept this packaging in food or garden waste bins but they may offer alternative collections.
 
Home compostable products can be thrown into your own compost heap or in food and garden waste bins. Once fully composted, you can use it on your garden to enrich the soil. 

At the moment just 40% of UK households have access to a compost heap or kerbside food waste bin but by 2023 councils will need to provide food waste bins and accept compostable packaging.

You can check out our range of plastic-free plant-based products here. 

How do I dispose of compostable packaging?

Look on the packaging to determine if the product is home compostable or industrially compostable. If it is home compostable, throw it in your compost heap or food or garden waste collection bin. If it is industrially compostable, check with your local authority.
 
Do not throw either types of compostable products into recycling as this will contaminate the other materials in the recycling stream so the whole batch cannot be recycled.

Do not throw it into general waste unless absolutely necessary because a traditional landfill does not have the right conditions to break the product down. Compostable materials will eventually break down in landfill but it will take substantially longer, wont be separated and used as fertiliser and will also release methane.

Recyclable

Recycling means reprocessing a material into a new product. Most of us are already familiar with the idea of recycling paper, cans, glass and some plastics and these items can either be recycled into the same product (e.g. a glass bottle into another glass bottle) or into lower grade material (e.g. writing paper into loo roll).

How do I dispose of recyclable packaging?

In the UK, recycling policies are handled by local authorities according to their recycling facilities. If you're not sure what can be recycled locally, check out this handy website. In addition to your kerbside recycling collection, there are many local specialist collection sites that can handle things like crisp packets and milk cartons.
 
If you're still in doubt about whether to recycle something, the best option is to throw the packaging into the bin. Why? Because one piece of questionable material can compromise a whole batch of recycling which means that everything will end up in a landfill instead of just one object.
 

Biodegradable 

Biodegradable is something that will break down naturally within a reasonable amount of time. If that sounds like a fluffy definition, it's because it is. There is no legal enforcement of the term which can lead to it being used by brands to greenwash their products and appear more sustainable than they actually are. For example, a biodegradable fork could take years before it starts to break down. As such, all certified compostable packaging is by default biodegradable but the reverse is not true.

How do I dispose of biodegradable packaging?

Biodegradable products need to be disposed of in the general waste where they will end up in landfill and eventually decompose, unless otherwise indicated on the packaging.
 

Top tips

  1. Always reduce and reuse before you recycle and compost
  2. Compostable and biodegradable materials can't be recycled
  3. If you don't know whether to recycle something, the best option is to throw the packaging into the bin
  4. Biodegradable doesn’t necessarily mean its good for the planet because it still contributes to landfill
  5. Only put home compostable products in your compost or food waste - industrially compostable products require a special collection

Sustainability is at the heart of Turnativ and we are keen to encourage more and more compostable and recyclable options. Check out our range of plastic-free plant-based products here.


Photo by Neslihan Gunaydin on Unsplash.