Thanks to huge advancements in recent years in research, technology, innovation and awareness, an increasingly large percentage of food packaging is now environmentally friendly. Consumers now demand sustainable products and packaging waste is not just frowned upon, it can actually cause customers to vote with their feet and take their business elsewhere.
But whereas in the past, products were simply labelled as ‘recyclable’, with little or no understanding about contamination or separating different materials, we now have a lot more information at our fingertips to ensure we dispose of packaging in the right way.
Beyond this, we don’t just distinguish between ‘recyclable’ and ‘non-recyclable’ anymore. Packaging can also be compostable or biodegradable as well, all claiming to be eco-friendly and sustainable. But what is the difference, and which is the most environmentally friendly packaging?
What is recyclable packaging?
Recycling means taking a product and breaking it down to enable it to be reprocessed and used again as the same product or something else. With materials such as glass and metal, this can be done time and time again, with no compromise in quality. But with other materials, there can be a limit on the number of times they can successfully be recycled. Plastic, for example, will usually be recycled into a lower quality product, if it can be recycled at all, while paper can also only be repurposed a few times. Regardless, the process keeps it away from landfill for longer, which is good news.
Some packaging claims to be ‘100% recyclable’, but that may not always actually be the case. While cardboard used for pizza boxes can be recycled, once it is contaminated by greasy residue, plus scraps of melted cheese, tomato sauce and various toppings, it can ruin a whole batch of recycling.
Recycling also uses energy, water and requires vehicles to move the materials around, such as from household bins to the recycling centre, none of which is ideal for the environment – although still preferable to sending products to landfill, of course.
On the plus side, even though recycling products uses energy, it reduces the need for a new product to be made from scratch – which would use even more resources and simply produce another item that eventually needs to be disposed of.
What is compostable packaging?
Made from natural materials such as starch, compostable packaging will decompose over time to create ‘humus’ – a nutrient-rich by-product which is great fertiliser and used to improve soil health.
To be labelled as ‘compostable’, products have to meet very strict standards, such as being certified to break down in a composting facility within 180 days.
But it’s not always a simple case of chucking your leftover food packaging onto your home compost heap with the apple core from lunch and the potato peelings from dinner. Unless they are specifically labelled ‘home compostable’, most materials are only able to be broken down in an industrial composting facility, which carefully regulates conditions such as temperature, air flow and moisture.
So, unless you have access to a local industrial composting facility, compostable packaging may not necessarily be the best solution.
What is biodegradable packaging?
Biodegradable packaging is actually very similar to compostable packaging and the terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same thing. The main differences between them are that biodegradable materials often take longer to decompose, but don’t require the very specific conditions – or even oxygen – to break down that compostable products do. They are broken down by natural microorganisms, such as bacteria, algae and fungi, into natural elements, like carbon dioxide, water and biomass. They can, however, also sometimes leave behind a metal residue.
The problem is, without placing a time-limit on it, pretty much everything can claim to be biodegradable. Yes, even those nasty, single-use, traditional plastics we’re all trying to move away from – technically. So sometimes packaging might be labelled ‘biodegradable’ on a mere technicality.
You may also have heard of bioplastics, which certainly sound like they should be biodegradable, but this isn’t always the case. Bioplastics are those made from plant-based materials, unlike the traditional oil-based plastics, so this includes things like polylactic acid (PLA) and polyethene terephthalate (PET). PLA is a biodegradable bioplastic, while PET does not biodegrade, but can be recycled.
Which type of packaging should I be using?
There’s no single, one size fits all answer to this question. Each type of packaging has its positives and drawbacks, but the important thing is that any sustainable material is preferable to damaging, single-use plastics which get sent to landfill and end up in our oceans, damaging habitats and harming wildlife.
Recycling allows materials to be reprocessed and reused which, while using energy and resources, is certainly better than having to manufacture brand-new products from scratch. In addition, people are now used to checking the symbols, recycling products and separating them out into the correct bins, but sometimes a whole batch of recycling can be ruined by contaminated items – which some may not even realise cannot be recycled. Recycling certain materials, such as paper and plastics, is also just delaying them being eventually shipped off to landfill.
Compostable packaging made from natural material, on the other hand, requires specific conditions to decompose but in the end can be broken down completely and, as an added bonus, can be used to benefit the environment and grow other resources.
Biodegradable packaging, meanwhile, is handy because it doesn’t need these same specific conditions to break down, but can take many years to disappear fully.
The great thing is, whatever you company’s requirements, there’s likely to be eco-friendly, cost-effective packaging available to help you meet your sustainability targets, while still providing excellent quality to your customers.
Browse Simply Eco Packaging’s range of eco-friendly food packaging solutions to see how we can support your company in reducing its carbon footprint.