Apr 30, 2021

Compostable Confusion: The What Is & Isn't of Sustainable Packaging

‘Sustainability’ is still very much a topical issue. Sure, it’s been shuffled ‘round a bit, moved up and down the priorities list (especially over the last twelve to sixteen months), yet through it all, it remains at the forefront of the conversation for consumers and producers alike.

We’d be lying if we didn’t say it was exciting to see companies continuing to do what they can to minimise their environmental impact wherever possible. It’s one of the major reasons sustainable packaging remains such a focus for us here at Jenkins.

Unfortunately, when it comes to packaging, we’re still seeing a lot of confusion out there about what is and isn’t sustainable. The truth is, sustainability is complicated, so while there’s a lot of excitement and passion, this isn’t always matched by a thorough understanding as to what constitutes a sustainable, recyclable, or compostable packaging solution.

We appreciate the passion, but we hate seeing it misplaced. Ultimately, learning to be truly sustainable comes from an in-depth understanding of the differences between packaging types, what they’re made of, their “fit for purpose”, and where they should end up once you - and your customers - are finished with them.

Let’s see if we can’t help demystify and clear up a bit of that confusion today...

Ok, so what is sustainable packaging?

The market is flooded with catch phrases these days, such as eco-friendly, sustainable, green and environmentally friendly. Often, these terms are used interchangeably which only increases the confusion. What’s the difference? Is there one? Should I even care?!

At the end of the day, the goal is to create a sustainable ecosystem that delivers fresh produce to consumers with minimal environmental impact, and yet the path taken to reach this goal differs widely depending on who you talk to and the products they’re selling.

It’s important to look past the spin and the marketing hype. Try to forget what they’re saying and make note of what it is they’re not saying (is that packaging home compostable? Or just compostable? As Jo covered earlier, there’s a big difference).

Without understanding the raw materials, chemicals, and resources (think water and energy) that are in the packaging's makeup, it's difficult to know just how truly sustainable something really is. What you need to know is whether your packaging is recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable and, if it is compostable, is it only industrial? Or does it comply with home composting standards?

Recyclable packaging

Recycling is the process of keeping used products and packaging away from landfill by converting them into something new. Glass and metals have an endless recyclable ability, but we can only recycle plastics, paper, and cardboard a few times before they're unusable or require the addition of virgin raw materials, otherwise it is destined to end up in landfill.

At the same time, we remember that recycling isn’t currently centrally controlled or legislated by the central government in New Zealand. This means we have each individual council determining how it manages its recycling and waste minimisation programme, all of which adds to the complexity and our ability (or inability) to navigate a sustainable pathway.

Despite our best intentions, the recycling process is complicated and easily disrupted by contamination. In fact, it's better not to put your packaging in your recycling bin if you think there's a chance it's not recyclable. Why? Because it only takes one uncertain item to contaminate the entire load and necessitate that it all be sent to landfill.

Curbside recyclable packaging typically includes:

  • Aluminium cans and foil
  • PET plastics (recycling symbol #1) – e.g. water bottles, biscuit trays
  • HDPE plastics (recycling symbol #2) – e.g. milk bottles, detergent bottles, ice cream containers
  • Glass
  • Cardboard and paper

As for soft plastics, need to be disposed of by placing in the bin at your nearest soft plastics collection point. Soft plastics are basically flexible plastic that can be scrunched into a ball and can including packaging items like:

  • Bread bags
  • Plastic fruit and produce netting bags
  • Elastitags®
  • Frozen food bags
  • Toilet paper bags
  • Courier envelopes
  • Squeeze pouches
  • Biscuit, confectionary and chip bags
  • Pasta and rice bags

Oh, and make sure you wash your packaging before throwing it in with the recycling.

It's not a myth that dirty items are seen as contaminated and will get sent straight to landfill!

Biodegradable packaging

Means and packaging that can be broken down naturally by bio-organisms such as bacteria and fungi can be labelled 'biodegradable'. The term itself is vague as an item that is “biodegradable” and put into landfill may still take many years to break down, although it would still be considered biodegradable.

It is important to remember that landfills are designed to inter waste and not compost or break down the waste. Therefore, even biodegradable packaging - when buried deep inside a landfill where no bio-organisms are present - may never truly break down.

Have you heard the term bio plastics? This is a packaging format which is still plastic and, as a result, produced from Ethylene. It’s just in the case of bio plastics, the Ethylene is extracted from biological matter i.e. corn, sugarcane etc. rather than fossil fuel (oil). So whilst on first glance it may seem better for the environment, when you factor in the precious resources like water and the addition of fertiliser to help grow the corn or sugarcane, the equation becomes far less clear.

Biodegradable packaging can be disposed of in your general landfill, or at a compost facility (home or industrial) where it will decompose over time. However, biodegradable items are not recyclable and will contaminate the recycling process if they end up in this category.

Compostable packaging

Compostable packaging is made from natural materials such as starches or fibers that can fully decompose and become compost. Whether it can decompose in an industrial or home compost, packaging must meet specific standards to be considered compostable.

We can't dispute the qualities of genuine compostable packaging as it's highly innovative. But it's not the be-all-end-all sustainable solution. Much like recyclable and biodegradable packaging, compostable packaging comes with its own set of grey areas.

Depending on what makes the packaging compostable - such as additives like PLA - if these items end up in recycling, it may contaminate the recycling stream, causing the load to end up in landfill. Therefore, consumers have a responsibility to ensure compostable packaging ends up in the right place after use (as do producers who need to better inform consumers as to how to dispose of their packaging)..

Compostable packaging differs from biodegradable packaging for two main reasons:

  • It does not produce toxins during decomposition
  • It breaks down within a few months

There’s no ‘silver bullet’, and that’s ok

As the move towards sustainability gains pace, the market is only going to become that much more saturated and difficult to parse. That’s just the way things work. So long as companies are putting in the work to choose the right sustainable packaging for their products, we’ll all keep moving towards the ultimate goal of minimising our impact on the world.

It’s complicated, and we get that. The important part is that we are talking and sharing our knowledge so that we can make better, more informed packaging decisions. Here at Jenkins we’re continuing to do our part in helping to educate the industry on the what, where, and how of sustainable packaging as well as delivering genuinely innovative packaging options for producers across the country.

As a start, remember the 4 R’s of waste management: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Redesign.

By learning about what is truly sustainable, we can all make better packaging choices.

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