The world’s attention has recently turned to the end-of-life management of plastic food packaging. As a result, manufacturers have developed new, more sustainable ways to produce products that meet their customers’ needs, often described as biodegradable or compostable.

The trouble is that these terms are now often used interchangeably, but they don’t actually mean the same thing – leaving many wondering, “What’s the difference between biodegradable and compostable packaging?” Let’s break it down.

What does biodegradable mean?

Biodegradation is the process of breaking down organic materials into carbon dioxide, water and biomass. Microorganisms break these materials down, and the speed is dependent on a number of factors like temperature, sun exposure, moisture and oxygen levels. Materials do not have to break down within an expected period in order to be considered biodegradable (which is different from compostable materials).

What does compostable mean?

Compostable materials are those that can break down into a substance called compost, which is a nutrient-rich substance that can be used as soil conditioner. It is essentially the process of recycling organic waste into something that can be reused. Unlike biodegradable materials, compostable materials must be able to break down completely within a specified time period in order to be considered compostable. Some organizations, like the National Zero Waste Council, require materials to break down within 180 days to be considered compostable. It’s worth noting that some materials break down on their own, but many break down the best in professionally managed compost facilities.

How can you tell if it’s biodegradable or compostable?

Many types of biodegradable and compostable packaging have labels indicating that they are accepted by municipal composting facilities. However, the best way to make sure that a packaging item is actually biodegradable or compostable is to ask the manufacturer for a third-party certification document, such as from the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). It’s also worth checking what materials and packaging types are commonly accepted by local municipalities’ composting facilities.

Check out this blog post by Genpak® to learn more about compostable food packaging.