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Recycling & Composting

Compostable versus biodegradable packaging

Team Compost Connect, 28 November 2023
Compostable versus biodegradable packaging

Biodegradable vs Compostable Packaging – What’s the Difference?

A range of eco-friendly paper tableware and packaging made from biodegradable materials.

We’ve all seen it: products or food packaging with the claims ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable.’

But have you ever wondered what these terms actually mean? Which packaging product you should opt for? And how to dispose of each?

This article has your questions, answered.

Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable

All certified compostable materials are biodegradable in a composting environment, however, not all biodegradable materials are compostable.

The thing is, any material will biodegrade if you give it enough time (for example, it takes around 500 years for fossil fuel plastic to break down). So this claim is meaningless on its own.

Compostable, on the other hand, is when a product can be organically recycled under specific conditions. If it’s properly certified through the Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA), compostable packaging will break down in a home or commercial environment.

Therefore, ‘biodegradable’ claims are often misleading or greenwashing, whereas ‘compostable’ claims (if they’re properly certified) are trustworthy because they’ve got factual evidence of their ability to break down.

Learn more about composting certifications here.

Why Does Knowing the Difference Between Compostable vs Biodegradable Matter?

Knowing the difference between these commonly used terms can help you make more informed choices about which packaging you use, and then dispose of it responsibly.

By opting for compostable instead of biodegradable, you’ll be taking a stand against greenwashing, helping fight plastic pollution, and preventing packaging from winding up in the wrong place.

Let’s look a bit closer at each – biodegradable and compostable.

What Is a Biodegradable Product?

A plastic cup with the words 'biodegradable’ written on it. It’s sitting on a bed of sand.

The definition of a ‘biodegradable product’ is broad – it’s any product made of any material that will naturally break down into smaller pieces over time.

So, you can no doubt see the issue here – eventually, every material will break down if you give it enough time (around 500 years for fossil fuel plastic).

Biodegradable products don’t need to be made from a biomaterial (plant-based material). You can find some products labelled ‘biodegradable plastic’ or ‘oxo-degradable plastics’ that can be made from conventional plastics, only with an additive that helps rapidly biodegrade the product. But the issue with these products is that as they degrade, they will leave microplastic fragments behind. 

Therefore, biodegradable is not recognised by the organics recycling industry and doesn’t hold a certification scheme – unlike compostable products in Australia.

As you can see, there are many reasons to avoid the word ‘biodegradable’ on its own. If you accidentally end up with a product labelled ‘biodegradable’, it should be sent to landfill (just like traditional plastic).

What Is a Compostable Product?

Randwick City Council FOGO wheelie bin with person throwing away used and empty compostable takeaway packaging.

Compostable products are typically made from rapidly renewable, reclaimed, plant-based raw materials, giving them the ability to break down in a composting environment and leave no toxic residue in the soil.

It often helps to think of ‘certified compostable’ materials as a subcategory of biodegradable materials.

But it gets a little more complex – not all ‘compostable’ claims are equal. There are many ‘look-alike’ products out there that resemble compostable packaging, but they aren’t actually compostable because they haven’t got the certifications to prove it.

Making compostable claims requires factual evidence in the form of certifications. There’s only one source of truth in Australia and New Zealand regarding a product’s compostability claims, the use of a Certified Compostable Logo from the Australasian Bioplastic Association (ABA).

Below, you’ll see an example of the ABA Home (AS5810) and Industrially (AS4736) Compostable Logos. Look for one of these two logos AND the company’s sub-licence number stated underneath.

The industrially compostable logo to Australian standards (AS4736). It is a green circular logo with a seedling with two leaves. There is also a spot where the company’s licence number should go.

Industrially Compostable (AS4736)

Image of the home compostable logo – illustrating the certification type (Home Compostable AS5810) and the spot where the company’s specific license number should go.

Home Compostable (AS5810)

Any product with the correct industrially compostable logo can be sent to an industrial facility. Check with your local council if certified packaging is accepted in your Food Organics and Garden Organics (FOGO) bin. Any product with a home compostable logo can be thrown in your backyard compost. Learn more about disposal here.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of knowledge or the lengthy and costly process of obtaining composting certifications, we often see companies wrongly labelling their products. Marking them as ‘biodegradable’ or even ‘compostable’ without holding certifications contributes to confusion, greenwashing and products ending up in the wrong place. This is why it’s important consumers don’t take things at face value.

Learn more about composting certifications here.

What About Bioplastics?

Some plastics are derived from fossil fuels while others are made from plants. Bioplastic is the term used for plastics derived from plant-based materials.

But just because a product is made from a bioplastic doesn’t automatically mean it’s rapidly biodegradable or compostable.

As you can see from the below diagram, biobased PET and PTT plastics aren’t compostable.

An X-Y graph showing the difference between ‘bioplastic’ and ‘fossil-based plastic’ products. It shows that some bioplastics like PLA, PHA and PBS are compostable, while some bioplastics PET and PE aren’t compostable. It also shows some fossil-based plastics, like BPAT, are compostable

Why is Certified Compostable Better?

When you opt for certified compostable products and they’re disposed of in the right way, there are several benefits for people, plants and the planet.

  1. Creates Nutrient-Rich Compost
    Compostable packaging can act as a vehicle to curb food waste because they can both be thrown into one bin – the compost bin! When disposed of together, they can transform into nutrient-rich fertiliser.

  2. Guaranteed to Break Down
    Certified compostable products have been through stringent testing to make sure they break down under certain conditions (home or commercial). For example, industrially compostable products have to show 90%
    biodegradation within 180 days in a compost facility.

  3. No Toxic Residues
    Certified compostable materials are tested to ensure they do not produce any toxic residues that would contaminate the compost.

  4. Part of the Circular Economy
    Certified compostable materials, when used for certain applications such as foodservice or agriculture, are considered to be part of the circular economy. Adopting compostable packaging and developing dedicated compost collections can help close the waste loop.

  5. Support Local Recycling
    By choosing certified compostable products and disposing of them in the right way, you get the guarantee your waste will be swiftly turned into nutrient-rich compost and support local industry. This also:

    • Avoids sending tonnes of plastic to landfills each year
    • Limits the amount of plastic pollution in our environment
    • Helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming
Compost Pile Icon
Creates Compost
Timer Icon
Guaranteed to breakdown
Toxic Icon
No Toxic Residues
Green Infinity Icon
Part of the Circular Economy
Recycle Icon
Support Local Recycling

Why We Avoid Using the Term Biodegradable

At Compost Connect, we’re dedicated to educating businesses and consumers on all things composting – including how to properly dispose of your compostable packaging.

We avoid recommending or affiliating ourselves with products that use ‘biodegradable’ claims, that’s because they can’t be verified and contribute to misinformation.

The term ‘compostable’ can be verified by certifications, so this is our preferred term.

How To Dispose of Biodegradable Packaging

So, what do you do if you order takeaway food or coffee, and then realise the packaging is labelled as ‘biodegradable’?

First, remember compostable certifications (under the ABA) are the only claims that can be trusted. These products have been through rigorous processes to make sure they will break down in either a home or industrial environment.

If a packaging product is simply labelled as ‘biodegradable’, in most cases it doesn’t hold a certification and has not been tested to break down in a composting environment. Therefore, the best disposal method is in your landfill bin. Don’t take the chance and send something ‘biodegradable’ to be composted – this only contaminates compost and gives the whole compostable packaging industry a bad name.

If the packaging product is certified compostable, you can send it to a commercial facility through your FOGO bin (if packaging is accepted by your council) or place it in your home compost, depending on what the certification label says. Make sure you read the label before disposal.

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