Unearthing the Differences Between Compostable and Recyclable Packaging

In the world of packaging, especially flexible packaging, there is a lot of talk about sustainability, as well as recycling and composting. What are the differences between a recyclable and compostable package, and in what other ways can packagers be sustainable?

Before we dive into the differences between compostable and recyclable packaging, let’s take a look at some of the benefits of flexible packaging.

Flexible packaging is highly regarded for its many consumer benefits –from its ease of use, lightweight and shatterproof properties, as well as numerous sustainable benefits.

According to the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), flexible packaging uses less resources to create than other package formats. For example, to create packaging for 60 pounds of a given beverage, you would need 50 pounds of glass, 6 pounds of rigid PET (polyethylene terephthalate), 3 pounds of aluminum and a mere 1.5 pounds of flexible plastic.

***Image Credit: Flexible Packaging Association

The lightweight nature of flexible packaging results in the optimal amount of packaging being used, with the least amount of resources necessary to protect the product. This lighter-weight option also means that flexible packaging costs far less to transport, as more packages can fit on each truckload. According to the FPA, to transport packaging for equal amounts of product, you would need 26 truckloads of unfilled glass jars, compared to only one truckload of unfilled flexible pouches.

Looking at Recyclable Packaging

According to the Collins English Dictionary, a package is deemed recyclable when the materials can be processed and used again. Many types of packaging can be recycled, and are recycled every day. Metal food and soda cans, plastic bottles, newspaper, paperboard cartons, and glass bottles and jars are frequently recycled. When a package is recycled, it is broken down into raw materials again and sold to manufacturers. Eventually, it is used in creating more packages.

So, where does digital flexible packaging fit into this? Since most flexible packaging is comprised of multiple layers, it is not always easy to recycle. Some layers within the package may be recyclable, but it is difficult and sometimes impossible to separate the layers for recycling, preventing the entire package from being deemed ‘recyclable’.

The good news is that some CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies and packaging suppliers are exploring eliminating certain layers like foil and PET to aid in the recyclability. These are still multi-layer packages, but with a mono-material, like plastic or aluminum, that satisfies the need to protect the contents inside, while enabling it to be recycle-ready.

The Flexible Packaging Alliance’s Perfect Packaging website is a great resource for determining which types of films are recyclable, how to go about recycling flexible packaging and finding a local flexible packaging recycling center.

What is Compostable Packaging?

According to worldcentric.org, compostable plastic is “plastic which is capable of undergoing biological decomposition in a compost site as part of an available program, such that the plastic is not visually distinguishable and breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, at a rate consistent with known compostable materials and leaves no toxic residue.”

In order for a plastic to be called compostable, it must biodegrade, or break down into carbon dioxide, water, or biomass at the same rate as cellulose (paper). It must also disintegrate and be indistinguishable in the compost, and it must not produce any toxic material.

In other words, the earth must be able to digest the material for it to be considered compostable.

Compostable flexible packaging is comprised of cellulose or other plant-derived materials. These bio-based plastics, or bioplastics, are plant-based materials used to replace the traditional plastics derived from petroleum. They are composed of polymers from renewable resources, partially or totally, such as corn, cellulose, plant oils, animal fats, and oils.

Compostable flexible packaging is becoming more prevalent as consumers are demanding more earth-friendly options. While not entirely mainstream as of now, some film companies are exploring compostable films that replace the main film in flexible packaging. These compostable films are designed to break down completely, sometimes in a matter of only a few months, depending on the environmental conditions.

Note: Composting can be coined “home” or “industrial.” Home composting is just that, composting your waste at home. Industrial composting is handled on a large scale, is actively managed and is done in high temperatures. The United States does not have as many industrial composting facilities as Europe, according to the Plastics Industry Association.

Other Sustainable Packaging Practices

Aside from creating recyclable or compostable packages, many companies are reducing the number of materials used in the production of their packaging. Creating smaller packages, eliminating dead space inside, and down-gauging are all ways to use fewer materials.

In addition, companies are looking at adding post-consumer recycled plastics to the creation of the package. This all adds to the overall sustainability of the package as post-consumer recycled plastics help reduce greenhouse gases.

According to Joseph P. Greene, of California State University, using recycled plastics can reduce the carbon footprint of a product from 30% to 50%. The benefit of compostable packaging is that the package is gone completely, with no toxic residue after (generally) months in compost, rendering no waste.

Sustainable Packaging for Your Brand

Thinking about incorporating flexible packaging into your product line-up, or already have flexible packaging but are considering ways to be eco-friendlier? At ePac Flexible Packaging, we are committed to finding ways to continue to improve flexible packaging’s impact on our environment. Part of this commitment includes sourcing recyclable films. Also, our innovative digital printing technology allows you to print on demand, reducing high-inventory and waste.

It’s our mission to partner with brands to find the packaging solution that is alignment with their mission and goals. Contact us to see how we can help bring your products to market today!