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The differences between recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging

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Matt Dobson: Last Updated 16th February 2024
Posted In: Environment | Guides and Advice
https://www.gwp.co.uk/author/Matt-Dobson/ xx 31179

Analysing sustainable packaging options

Assessing the differences between differing types of sustainable packaging.

Are you unsure of the differences between recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging? And what impact can these options have on your business or organisation? You are not alone.

There are crucial differences between recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging. Recyclable packaging uses materials that can be reused, typically after processing. Compostable packaging and biodegradable packaging break down naturally in the correct environment. Whilst all compostable packaging is biodegradable, not all biodegradable materials are compostable.

This guide explains the differences between recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging, and the common options available to your business in each category.

Contents

Introduction

Understanding the differences can help in your decision making process.

Knowing the difference between recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging can be crucial for your business. Besides the environmental impact, many studies have shown that consumers prefer eco-friendly packaging. According to Statista that figure is as high as 81%! But consumers are also confused about the different types of packaging – and how they should recycle or dispose of it. Reuters reports that 42% who are unsure of the labelling take a wild guess as to how they should dispose of their packaging.

As such, not only is choosing the correct packaging essential, but so is communicating what you are doing to your customers. This can range from your advertising and marketing, to including on-pack recycling logos.

However, before considering this, it is important to understand the variances between recyclable, compostable and biodegradable options.

Cardboard box with environmentally friendly symbols on the side.
The types of symbols that can be found on cardboard packaging.

What is recyclable packaging?

A process of reusing materials to make new products.

Recyclable packaging involves reusing materials to make new products.

This keeps materials away from landfills for an extended period and avoids using new materials. However, not all materials are recyclable.

Recyclable packaging materials include:

  • Paper.
  • Glass.
  • Metal.
  • Card.
  • Certain plastics.

Recyclable cardboard packaging

The most common recyclable material is corrugated cardboard, which is recyclable as many as 20 times before the fibres are too short to be able to process. Recycling cardboard also requires 75% less energy than using raw materials.

When it comes to choosing recyclable packaging, it’s essential to take care to understand the materials being used. Certain products that can be made from paper but require a plastic coating for durability and longevity can take years to decompose.

The good news is that both paper and plastic components can also be sourced from recycled materials, which in turn are a considerable benefit to industries where plastic may be unavoidable.

Top view of a woman preparing a box with packaging innards.
An example of cardboard packaging being used.

Recycling logos on packaging

For consumers, frustrations lie within how packaging is labelled to be recycled. There is often confusion with the labels on packaging, so businesses can opt to promote and educate their customers on recycling correctly through design, correct labelling and information on platforms like social media.

Businesses don’t necessarily have to use recyclable materials, but reusable packaging, like mailing bags, for example, can be used several times for the same purpose. Ultimately, this helps materials stay away from being processed or ending up in landfills.

At GWP Packaging, we can provide guidance and advice on how best to increase your business’s sustainability.

What is compostable packaging?

Compost comes from compostable types of packaging.

Compostable packaging is made from natural sources. Unlike biodegradable, this type of eco-friendly packaging can decompose to form compost, offering no toxic residue to the surrounding environment.

This type of packaging can include labels for industrial and at-home composting. Packaging showing the ‘seedling’ logo means the product uses certified materials to be industrially compostable through the European standard EN 12432/14955. These products require certain conditions to compost properly.

The ‘home’ compostable logo highlights packaging that can be disposed of in a regular compost bin.

Compost, waste and recycle bins
Having a separate compost bin would resolve contaminated recycling issues.

Compostable packaging advantages and disadvantages

The disadvantage to compostable packaging is end consumers may not always have the opportunity to decompose materials to make compost. In comparison, businesses can send their waste to compost manufacturers to be disposed of without the hassle of setting up the correct environment for composting (which can be both time-consuming and costly).

Compostable materials can take 6 to 12 weeks to break down. Once fully decomposed, what’s left is carbon dioxide and dark, nutrient-rich organic matter, ideal for plants.

Using compostable packaging materials is great for helping minimise waste and satisfy eco-conscious consumers. However, compostable and biodegradable plastics are not currently recyclable and often contaminate the recycling process. This happens when consumers get confused with recycling and place the wrong materials in their recycling bin.

Innovation and development of technology could see us potentially recycling compostable products.

What is biodegradable packaging?

Research and development has optimised packaging materials from sustainable sources.

Biodegradable products are made from sustainable sources, like starch, cellulose and soy protein, which will decompose from the breakdown by microorganisms.

Issues with this type of packaging are the labelling does not help determine the time it takes to decompose. Certain types of packaging only decompose under certain conditions.

The other problem with the decomposition of this type of packaging is it can release harmful toxins to the surrounding environment, making biodegradable packaging the most inconsistent type of packaging.

Also, as of right now, biodegradable packaging is not recyclable. To break down, it needs an environment which helps it decompose.

Biodegradable vs compostable packaging

The difference between biodegradable and compostable is that biodegradable materials deteriorate differently, requiring microbes, light, moisture and air. Biodegradable components often take longer to break down and leave very few natural elements behind.

Your packaging supplier will be able to help you define what biodegradable means to them and how best to optimise the lifecycle of the packaging.

Having said this, biodegradable packaging offers a solution towards minimising environmental impact, where plastic pollutes rivers and oceans. As more innovative solutions enter the market, it’s a viable option for many.

Different types of biodegradable crockery
An example of biodegradable products

Summary

Choosing the right packaging for your business

With a vast array of sustainable packaging options, deciding which would suit your business or application can prove incredibly difficult.

GWP Group can help you with this. We have more than 30 years of experience in providing sustainable packaging solutions and have a team of knowledgeable designers and engineers who are focused on minimising the environmental impact of your packaging.

Crucially, offering recyclable, biodegradable and compostable options alongside reusable solutions means you get truly impartial advice on the best option for your specific requirements.

So, if you need help deciding between recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging, please speak with one of our packaging experts.

Further reading

About the Author

Matt Dobson, GWP Group Marketing Manager

Matt Dobson

Marketing Manager | GWP Group

Matt has worked in the packaging industry for over 10 years, having joined GWP Group as Marketing Executive in 2012. [Read full bio]

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