Compostable Food Packaging
We use the ASTM D6400 standards to test compostability of our plant-based materials, which confirms they will break down in a commercial compost facility within 180 days. We are further committed to Federal Trade Commission guidelines to clearly indicate when this will only reliably happen in a commercial composting facility.
The FTC is cracking down on “green” claims and has extensive guidelines to help ensure consumers can review factual and quantifiable information about eco-friendly products and packaging. Some of the most confusing and misrepresented terms have been around biodegradability and compostability (and recyclability, which you can read more about here).
According to the FTC, for a material to be called “biodegradable”, it must “completely break down and return to nature (i.e., decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonably short period of time after disposal.” There is no set definition for a “reasonably short period of time” and fewer restrictions on exactly what elements remains after it has broken down. For example, it’s considered OK if there are traces of metals or other residue, provided those are naturally found in the environment. That’s pretty good, but this also led to a sneaky new term being introduced in the plastics world just to further confuse everyone – “oxo–degradable”. In this case, with the addition of a chemical to kick off the degradation process, a plastic will break into microscopic granular or fiber-like fragments. In other words, it will disappear to the naked eye, but the microscopic bits and pieces of plastic and potentially hazardous additives live on, like, forever.
For packaging to be called “compostable”, the FTC states that there must be scientific evidence that it will naturally break down into soil or “hummus” that is safe and usable to fuel the growth of new plants, and it must do so within a verified amount of time. Further, it must be fully disclosed under what conditions it will break down. For example, most of today’s compostable packaging requires the controlled conditions in a commercial composting facility to properly compost within 180 days.
So, to simplify:
Degradable = the packaging will break down over time. The length of time and what it breaks down into are not regulated. Using that logic, your car is also fully degradable – some faster than others!
Oxo-degradable = when exposed to sunlight, the packaging will break down into much smaller fragments of exactly what it was before. Just like that glitter on the holiday decorations that gets everywhere and just never goes away. Ever.
Biodegradable = the packaging will break down into elements found in nature, but it can take its sweet time doing it and can’t reliably be used to grow new stuff. That tiny shred of chicken that crawled under your couch cushion and slowly emitted an untraceable odor for months on end is good example of this.
Compostable = the packaging will break down in a controlled amount of time in a commercial facility and will create soil or “hummus” that is usable to grow new plants. Worm food. Mmmm – tasty.
But wait! There’s more to the story. Claiming that a material used to create packaging is compostable does not mean the final packaging can be composted. This is where the risk of “greenwashing” really begins.
It’s not enough to test the raw materials to ensure compostability. The final packaging as it’s likely to arrive at a composter must be tested. This is because different thicknesses and manufacturing methods can all impact whether the item will still reliably break down within the required amount of time. That’s why you’ll see some of our packaging has additional independent certifications, like the Compost Manufacturing Alliance or the Biodegradable Products Institute, that confirm compostability and/or highlight that they’re accepted for composting in certain commercial composting systems. In these cases, the actual packages have been tested to make sure they do what we say they’ll do. This is also why you’ll see our packaging always lists the percentage of plant-based material it contains, but you won’t see us making blanket statements that all our stuff is “compostable”. We make sure both the material and the packaging has passed the test.
We can also provide insights about whether you or your customers are living in a region where they can access commercial composting services or whether your city or region is subject to regulations that may it essential to choose certain types of certified compostable packaging. We can also advise you on the addition of labels, sealants and other accessories that may impact whether your used packaging will be accepted by the composter once it reaches their facility.
Regardless of all this, it’s important to recognize that the vast majority of packaging still ends up in landfills (read more about this in recycling), and all of it slowly degrades to some extent. In the case of our plant-based and compostable packaging, it will not leach potentially hazardous chemicals into the soil or water table when that happens. Traditional petroleum-based plastic packaging cannot make this claim, regardless of the end-of-life options the industry promotes.