More than 380 million tons of plastic is produced each year, and plastic packaging accounts for 40% of all our plastic usage. The vast majority of plastic is not recycled, and instead is sent to the landfill, where it will take thousands of years to break down.
While there are lots of innovative technologies out there to help us reduce our waste, industry experts and packaging manufacturers are also developing compostable plastics to replace harmful plastic waste. Depending on how they’re made, compostable plastics can go into your home compost bin or into a large industrial composting facility.
Wondering what all this means? Today, we’re talking about everything you need to know about compostable packaging: is it the solution we need, or is it just another form of waste?
Feel free to read through the whole article or skip to any part that looks most interesting to you:
- What is compostable packaging?
- How to tell if packaging is compostable
- 6 sustainable companies that use compostable packaging
- 3 ways to properly dispose of compostable packaging
- 6 FAQs about compostable packaging
We’ll get into all these topics, but let’s start by asking the basic question: what is compostable packaging?
What is compostable packaging?
Image credit: Pela
Compostable packaging is made of some kind of organic matter that can break down. There are multiple types of compostable packaging materials, from traditional cardboard and paper to bioplastics. Some packaging can be composted at home, but some has to be composted industrially.
The resulting broken down material from compostable packaging is nutrient-rich and is able to be incorporated into the soil. This pre-compost helps plants grow and thrive, and contributes to a more sustainable, closed-loop consumer system.
The difference between bioplastics and traditional plastics is what they’re made of. Traditional plastics are made of petroleum or gas, whereas bioplastics are made from plant extracts like corn starch and sugarcane.
How to tell if packaging is compostable
It can be tough to tell whether some packaging is compostable. Besides a clear marking on the package, you can visit the package company’s website and check for any bioplastic standards they claim to meet on their sustainability page or elsewhere.
There are several bioplastic standards that must be met in order for these materials to be considered compostable.
- ASTM - American Society for Testing and Materials: Standard ASTM D6400 would be met if the bioplastic undergoes the typical process of decomposition without leaving behind any toxic byproducts.
- CEN - European Committee for Standardization: Standard EN 13432 would be met if the manufacturer discloses all the materials in the bioplastic, and the materials do not exceed heavy metal limits. The standard also has a 6 month time limit and the resulting material must be almost totally disintegrated at the 3 month mark. The bioplastic can’t mess up the industrial composting process and it can’t release any toxic material.
- ISO - International Organization for Standardization: Standard ISO 17099:2012 would be met if it can be fully biodegraded and disintegrated without any negative effects on the industrial composting facility or the compost material itself.
If you accidentally add non-compostable plastic to a compost system, you could be adding harmful or toxic chemicals to an otherwise healthy pile. As it breaks down, it will introduce microplastics into the environment, which can be eaten by wildlife or the chemicals can seep into natural systems.
Here are a few examples of compostable packaging. You are probably familiar with some of them, but a few might surprise you!
- Paper and cardboard
- Uncoated cellulose film
- Starches, like corn-based packing peanuts
- Packaging your Lomi ships in
6 sustainable companies that use compostable packaging
You’ve probably heard this before, but you can use your dollars as a kind of voting power. The more you shop sustainable companies using compostable packaging, the more other companies will follow in their footsteps.
If you’re hoping to support and shop more companies that choose sustainable packaging, here is a hand-picked list of our favorite brands that are picking the health of the planet.
- Pela: Both Pela phone cases and Lomi countertop composter come in compostable packaging. You can actually add every part of Lomi’s box and package right into Lomi and break it down inside the machine during Lomi approved mode. Check out what people are saying about Lomi!
- Parade: While all Parade’s garments are made from recycled materials (and can’t be composted), their packaging is made from corn starch and their mailers are paper. They guarantee their packaging will be fully composted within 300 days, but you have to remove the shipping label first.
- Lush: All of Lush’s products are either reusable (like their gift wrapping fabric), recyclable (like their tin containers) or compostable. From plant-based packing peanuts to compostable box cardboard to industrial compostable plastics like cellulose, Lush has made sure their customers can responsibly dispose of their products’ packaging.
- Pangea Organics: Sourcing a fully sustainable ingredient list and boasting completely vegan skin care products, Pangea Organics ship in plantable and compostable packaging. Each of their soap cases is made with 100% post-consumer molded fiber.
- Don Maslow Coffee: Some coffee companies have been packaging their coffee in paper, which is usually compostable. Unfortunately, they are still using plastic seals and ties. Unlike other coffee companies, Don Maslow Coffee worked with their packaging supplier to create 100% compostable coffee bags.
- Alter Eco Truffle Chocolates: This sustainable chocolate company has been wrapping their truffles in plant-based compostable film since 2013.
3 ways to properly dispose of compostable packaging
You might have just finished a cup of coffee or have eaten your lunch from a to-go container, and you notice that on the package, it says it’s compostable. That sounds great! But now, you’re stuck between tossing it into the trash or the recycling bin.
The bad news is, if the package is compostable, it probably can’t be recycled. You still have a few choices about what to do with compostable packaging, though, so don’t worry! Here are 3 ways you can responsibly dispose of a compostable package.
1. Electric composting (Lomi)
The Lomi electric kitchen composter can easily break down paper and cardboard from packaging. It can also process bioplastics, including the packaging Lomi itself comes in! But before you add any non-food items into your Lomi, be sure to check that they are Lomi approved! These products have gone through rigorous testing and only these can be guaranteed to break down in Lomi.
Lomi uses the classic components of traditional composting–heat, water, and abrasion–in a constantly rotating machine to quickly and efficiently break down compostable materials into nutrient-rich dirt. Electric composters are fast and easy, and they are making the future possibilities of every home reusing their food waste for good a reality.
This is perfect for: People who want a daily supply of nutrient-rich dirt. It is also perfect for somebody who might not have space for a backyard compost system or a curbside compost pickup program in their community.
2. Home composting
If you’re interested in a more hands-on approach, give home composting a try! There are so many methods of home composting; there’s definitely a compost bin that works best for you and your space.
Whatever backyard composting method you choose, you’re able to add in any bioplastic or compostable packaging that clearly says ‘home compostable.’ This means that it doesn’t require the extra energy and heat involved in industrial composting. Include paper compostable mailers, cardboard, and some bioplastic mailers in your home compost bin.
Lots of companies have sustainability statements and packaging information on their websites; visit their sites if you aren’t completely sure.
This is perfect for: Anyone with a little extra time and space and a need for lots of pre-compost for their plants or garden.
3. Industrial composting
While you might not be able to start your own compost pile, you can still compost the bioplastic packaging you’ve collected! Luckily, most curbside composting programs accept industrially-compostable bioplastics. All you have to do is sign up for a curbside pickup service like you would set up trash or recycling pickup.
The program will provide you a bucket to dump all your compostable items in, from food waste to packaging. Then, they’ll come by and pick it up and add it to their compost system. Because they are normally quite large operations, they use industrial composting methods to break down your waste, along with other members of your community. This method is relatively easy, but some municipal facilities might not be clear about how they’re handling industrial compostable materials.
This is perfect for: People who don’t have the time or space to start their own compost system. It’s also perfect for the (sustainable) online shopper who ends up with lots of bioplastic packaging that can’t be home composted.
6 FAQs about compostable packaging
The concept and innovation of compostable packaging is relatively new, which means there are a lot of common questions about it. It is a confusing idea! Here are the definitive answers to the most frequently asked questions about compostable packaging.
1. Do biodegradable and compostable mean the same thing?
Biodegradable and compostable are similar, but they don’t actually mean the same thing. Compostable items break down into a non-toxic, beneficial material to add to soil or plants. Biodegradable items also break down, but the term also applies to toxic plastics that degrade in hundreds of years.
The difference between the two depends on the setting, as well. A compost system is a controlled setting where materials break down into nutrient-rich pre-compost in a relatively short period of time. When something biodegrades, it might take place in the landfill or on the roadside. There is also no set timeline for biodegradable materials. Whether it takes a few weeks or a thousand years, something like a plastic-lined paper cup can still be labeled biodegradable.
Biodegradable packaging is less regulated than compostable packaging, so you have to make sure you are checking carefully before you try to compost any sort of packaging. Biodegradable items can still be made of petroleum or oil–they just have a slight chemical change.
2. Is compostable packaging more expensive?
Yes. Compostable packaging materials are generally more expensive than the original plastic packaging. Compostable plastics can cost up to 2-3 times more than those made from petroleum or oil. Luckily, market demand and increased consumer interest have made costs go down over time.
3. Can you recycle compostable packaging?
No. Compostable packaging materials like plastic cannot be recycled. They are made of chemically different kinds of plastic, which means they can actually disrupt a recycling stream when mixed with petroleum or oil based plastics. Most paper and cardboard packages are recyclable.
4. Can you throw out compostable packaging with food waste?
Sure. But, it’s much better to add compostable packaging and food waste into the compost if you can. In a home compost bin or at an industrial composting facility, they’ll safely compost. If you throw these things into the trash, they will break down and create harmful emissions like methane.
5. Can you put any compostable packaging in a home compost pile?
When something is home compostable, it means every part of the packaging can be turned into nutrient rich dirt, from the ink to the adhesive material to the package itself. Only add packages to your compost that are clearly marked as home compostable.
Companies like Better Packaging Co. create certified home compostable packaging that small businesses or mail-lovers can order for shipping.
6. What compostable packaging can you put in Lomi?
You can put paper and cardboard products into Lomi, but you have to make sure the bioplastics you want to add are Lomi approved. Check out Lomi’s support page to find Lomi approved bioplastics you can throw into Lomi! Run a Lomi Approved cycle with a LomiPod for best results. These approved products have been tested heavily and are guaranteed to break down in Lomi!
It can be challenging to manage your waste. From learning how to compost your biodegradable waste to sorting your plastics to worrying about whether your recycling is really getting recycled, waste management can be really stressful.
While there are more and more solutions to the waste problem, sometimes the best thing we can do is just consume less. For all those things we can’t consume less of, choosing compostable items is the most beneficial option in the long run. Lomi can break down so much of our waste in the kitchen, and it can even break down some of our compostable plastic waste. Check out what else Lomi can do on our site!
Written by: Jess Savage