Let’s clear up the certification confusion.
In this article, we’ll breakdown (pun intended) everything you need to know about some of the buzzwords used in reference to sustainable packaging.
Specifically, we’re going to focus on setting the record straight for terms such as degradable, biodegradable, as well as the difference between home compostable and industrial compostable certifications.
Let’s dive right in.
Good old degradable – it’s a term that gets thrown around a lot but isn’t particularly useful when discussing the environment.
Simply put, most products in our marketplace are ‘degradable’. That is, they’ll break down into smaller pieces, some of which will eventually become invisible to the naked eye.
Even diamonds degrade over time (no matter what savvy marketing tells us).
Now obviously some things degrade faster than others, but here’s the problem: even the most degradable of materials can leave microscopic residues that then migrate into our natural ecosystem.
For example, microplastics have been steadily filling the Earth’s oceans, which will be around for up to 1000 years, entering food chains and devastating our marine life.
So, the degradability of a packaging material doesn’t give us much insight into its environmental value.
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Well, sort of.
When you add ‘bio’ to degradable, it means the product has the ability to break down into completely natural substances. Given the right conditions and presence of microorganisms, fungi, or bacteria, it will eventually break down and blend back in with the earth. Ideally, but not always, these substances degrade without leaving any toxins behind.
Unfortunately, many materials — even ones with a biodegradable label — do break down in a more harmful manner, leaving chemicals or other damaging substances in the soil.
Another problem with the term biodegradable is that there are no standards set to accurately determine the length of time a product needs to biodegrade. It doesn't speak to the required conditions either.
So, while this term is better than degradable as it does suggest they will break down without eco-toxicity, in most cases it isn't the end game.
Moving right along.
Industrially compostable products come with the certification EN1342 for Europe or AS4736 for Australia. Products that adhere to these standards are able to be composted in large facilities where the items are spun and kept at temperatures between 50°C and 60°C.
To attain this certification, industrially compostable products need to disintegrate in 12 weeks and biodegrade after 6 months into CO2, water and biomass (valuable compost). They can still break down in your home compost but it will take more time.
While some councils will allow industrial compostable products in your green bins (and all of Adelaide, kudos SA), the major problem with these products at the moment is the lack of government support. Otherwise they are a great option and clearly superior to plastic.
In technical terms, composting is the accelerated degradation of heterogeneous organic matter in a mixed microbial population in a moist, warm aerobic environment under controlled conditions.
Items that are home compostable come with the certification AS5810 and are certified to break down in your compost bin at home within 180 days, although our Ecomailers will break down much faster. This certification even includes a worm toxicity test so you can be sure you’re not harming the little guys, or your garden.
Home compostable items are converted into compost and CO2, which can then be used to improve soils for more efficient and sustainable production of crops. This eliminates waste and methane production, resulting in the most sustainable approach to dispose of such products for households (and also your food scraps for that matter).
It's not always easy to work out which businesses are greenwashing, and which are selling products that legitimately carry environmental value.
While plastic is devastating for our planet and its ecosystems, some alternatives are not much better.
Hopefully this has been a useful resource to assist you in making better informed decisions about degradable, biodegradable and compostable products, so we can make a positive impact on our future together.