Compostable vs. Biodegradable: What’s the Difference?

Sustainable, recyclable, compostable, biodegradable— there are a lot of buzzwords used to describe eco-friendly packaging. Each has a place within the packaging realm; each has its own pros and cons. We’ve covered post-consumer recycled versus recyclable packaging options in the past, but what about compostable versus biodegradable packaging… Do you know the difference?

What is Biodegradable Packaging?

The term biodegradable refers to any material that can be broken down by microorganisms (like bacteria and fungi) and absorbed back into the earth. Biodegradation is a naturally occurring process where an item breaks down and turns into simple organic components like biomass, carbon dioxide, and water. 

For packaging to be labeled biodegradable, it must be able to turn into organic matter. Generally, biodegradable packaging breaks down in three and six months. 

The potential con to biodegradation is that biodegradables only work if disposed of properly and in facilities that regulate temperature, moisture, and oxygen levels. For instance, if biodegradable products end up in a landfill instead of at one of these facilities, they will eventually break down (biodegrade), but during the process will emit greenhouse gases, which doesn’t help to lessen their impact on the environment. 

So if you’re looking for custom biodegradable packaging, remember there must be specific conditions for it to turn into organic matter in an environmentally friendly way.

Compostable Packaging Definition

Composting is the process of recycling organic waste for reuse. When carried out correctly, compostable packaging is broken down in just a few months and the by-product is a nutrient-rich product called humus. 

A big plus? The composting process allows organic carbon to return to the earth while reducing  methane emissions (greenhouse gases). 

There are two ways to compost – a traditional backyard compost pile, or a commercial facility. Backyard composting takes place at people’s homes while commercial composting takes place at a specially designed facility that accelerates the natural process. Unlike biodegradation, which is an entirely natural process, composting requires human intervention. Most of the human intervention in industrial and backyard settings involves the contribution of the water, oxygen, and organic matter necessary to optimize conditions. 

The great thing about composting is that it can be done at home, though it must be properly managed so that the nutrient-rich material can return to the earth. 

It’s worth noting that just because packaging is labeled compostable doesn’t mean consumers can successfully compost it. Instead, some compostable packaging must be sent to commercial facilities that regulate the environmental conditions necessary for composting. This is why it’s imperative that packages are labeled properly so consumers know the best way to dispose of it. 

While composting capabilities vary greatly from one community to another, compostable packaging serves as an eco-friendly alternative to conventional packaging.

What is Better Compostable or Biodegradable?

To summarize, both biodegradable and compostable packaging break down over time. But they require different conditions in order for that process to work. 

Biodegradable products will break down naturally if given enough time, but the process can be sped up with the correct processes. Compostable products require a mix of moisture, soil, air, and other nitrogen and/or carbon-rich elements. While the composting process requires specific elements, it is generally much faster than biodegradation. 

Partnering with ePac

At ePac, we believe that compostable products are a great option for the environment because they break down into non-toxic components with the assistance of heat, water, oxygen, and microorganisms. 

That’s why we offer compostable options for stand up pouches, lay flat pouches, and rollstock made from certified compostable materials. These pouches are composed of compostable certified films, inks, lamination, adhesive, and zippers, and are free of fossil and petroleum based plastics. All our compostable custom packaging comes with the same high-quality performance and print quality as our more traditional offerings. 
If you’re trying to reduce your environmental impact, using certified compostable materials is a great start. Ready to get started on creating sustainable packaging solutions for your brand? Call us today.