Ever wondered which packaging products are better for the environment – compostable vs recyclable?
It’s a good question, especially since greenwashing is becoming increasingly common and there are hazy rules around using these terms. So let’s compare compostable and recyclable in simple terms.
For starters, let’s clear one thing up: composting technically IS recycling – organics recycling! And when both traditional recycling and composting are done correctly, we can reduce what we send to landfill and work towards a zero waste circular economy. So both are valuable in their own way.
But what’s the difference between compostable and recyclable, exactly?
And which is better for the environment? (hint: it depends on the application).
Let’s look a little closer.
To put it simply, composting is for recycling ‘organic matter’ (anything that was once living) and traditional recycling is for materials like paper, glass, and plastics.
Like nature’s version of recycling, composting is the natural break down of organic matter over time. Fungi, bacteria, insects, worms and other organisms break down organic waste to produce a nutrient-rich compost, which has flow-on benefits for soil, plants and the planet at large.
Whether it’s a large commercial facility or your backyard compost bin, composting requires minimal energy and harnesses nature’s power to turn waste into fertiliser.
On the other hand, recycling is not a natural process. It involves separating and processing waste like paper, glass and plastics (mechanically or chemically) to make the materials ready to be used in new products.
This is a layered question with no straightforward answer, because it always depends on the specific application.
In some instances, traditional recycling is a more viable solution, yet in others, composting is the best option. Both help contribute to a circular economy.
The Zero Waste Hierarchy shows – from highest to lowest – the strategies we should use to support a zero waste system. As you can see, recycling and composting fall together in the middle, below reducing and reusing.
At Compost Connect, we focus specifically on packaging in the foodservice industry. In this instance, we see composting as the ideal solution.
The harsh truth: the vast majority of food packaging is not being recycled and winds up in landfills. That’s because it’s either too small to be sorted by recycling plants, contaminated with food, or made of various materials that can’t be separated easily. Food waste in landfills emits methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide (source).
At Compost Connect, we believe composting is the perfect end-of-life option for foodservice packaging. That’s because it acts as a vehicle to curb food waste – packaging and food waste can all go in one bin to be commercially composted. What’s more, composting helps avoid the methane emissions associated with food in landfills, while creating a nutrient-rich fertiliser that can be used to improve soil quality.
While composting is the preferred disposal method for compostable packaging used to serve food, recycling also has an important role to play in the circular economy.
By recycling plastics, glass and metals correctly, we’re preventing a huge amount of waste from ending up in landfills.
What you can (and can’t) recycle differs from council to council. This is why you should check your local council guidelines to know exactly what you can put in your kerbside bins.
It’s also crucial that recyclable materials are kept separate from organic waste. If a bin load of recycling is mixed with a liquid substance or food scraps, its content might not get recycled and sent to landfill instead as contamination.
The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) has launched The Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) Program – an on-pack labelling scheme to help you recycle packaging correctly. These labels will tell you what’s recyclable, conditionally recyclable and not recyclable.
There are two types of composting: industrial and home composting. What you can compost depends on the method you use.
Industrial composting occurs in an industrial composting facility. It uses controlled inputs, like aeration, feedstock, temperature and humidity levels to rapidly biodegrade organic materials. Because of the controlled settings, a commercial compost often breaks down organic materials faster, and it can also accept materials that won’t break down in your home compost (like some bioplastics).
As the name suggests, home composting can be done in your backyard compost. Temperatures are generally lower, which means the process will be slower and some materials will not break down as easily.
When determining whether a packaging product is compostable, there’s one mark all consumers should look for – The Certified Compostable Logo under the Australasian Bioplastics Association. This proves a product is certified home or industrially compostable to Australian standards. Always look for this mark as well as the company’s specific licence number.
There are so many benefits of traditional recycling. It can:
There are so many benefits of composting – for people, soil, plants and the planet. Composting can:
Both composting and recycling can contribute to a circular economy, although the answer to “which one is better?” depends on the specific packaging, materials and application.
At Compost Connect, we see composting as a more sustainable recycling choice in the foodservice industry. That’s because composting requires fewer resources and energy, it can easily be done in your backyard!
Not only that, it acts as a vehicle to help curb food waste by transporting leftover food to a compost bin (rather than landfill).
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