Biodegradable, compostable, biosourced packaging - What’s what?

Reducing our waste and respecting the environment are important challenges in many people’s daily lives. The way we consume and sort our waste plays an essential role.

This is why at Comme Avant, we decided to go for a zero waste approach. As well as producing products which are safe for your body and our planet, we are doing our best to limit our packaging’s impact on the environment. As packaging is a legal requirement to protect a product during transport, we decided to opt for products which are either refillable (our toothpaste and deodorant) or with biodegradable wrapping paper (kraft paper for our soap, shampoo, cream, and refills).

For a few years now, the compostable/biodegradable packaging phenomenon has grown so quickly that, it’s true, it isn’t always easy to understand what’s what. Some packaging can be biodegradable, others are both biodegradable and compostable, some can be compostable but not biodegradable and then bioplastic and biosourced packaging also come along…! What are the differences between all these packagings?

We admit, it isn’t always straightforward, and we are going to help you.

 

Is there a norm to regulate this type of packaging?

There are two relevant norms regarding biodegradable, compostable, and biosourced packaging.

The first one, dating back to 2000, is called “Requirements for packaging recoverable through composting and biodegradation – Test scheme and evaluation criteria for the final acceptance of packaging”. This European norm EN13432 defines the terms “compostable" and “biodegradable” with regards to packaging.

If you own a compost bin or use a shared one, the 2015 the French norm NF T 51-800 “Plastics – Specifications for plastics suitable for home composting” could be useful to you. It determines which plastics can be used in home compost bins.

 

So, according to this norm (EN13432), when does a packaging qualify as “biodegradable”?

First of all, it’s important to understand the word. We refer to “biodegradable” when a packaging can be broken down thanks to the action of micro-organisms in the ground - such as mushrooms and bacteria, naturally present in the environment. Other factors such as oxygen, the level of humidity and light, or even the temperature can impact biodegradability and the biodegradation time.

It’s true, the notion of time plays an important role here. A product needs to degrade relatively fast (on a human scale) to be considered biodegradable. It needs to achieve 90% of biodegradation in less than 6 months. For example, a plastic bottle isn’t biodegradable as it needs around 400 years to break down. 

When talking about biodegradable packaging, this implies that it completely disappears (in the right environment). The size of the particles obtained isn’t taken into account and only particles which can be reused by plants and micro-organisms need to remain. Once broken down, it is of no danger for the environment as only beneficial substances are released into nature such as carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (depending on the conditions), water, or biomass. It safely reintegrates the natural cycle.

We now know what a biodegradable packaging is. But what about compostable ones?

 

What does a “compostable packaging” entail?

You may have noticed, composting has significantly grown in the past years.

The definition of a “compostable” packaging is more precise than a “biodegradable” one as it is based on time data and takes into account certain conditions relating to a packaging’s fragmentation. 

Packaging qualified as compostable is capable of breaking down thanks to oxygen, humidity, and a certain temperature. It’s because of this last factor that some packaging break down easier in industrial composting systems as these can easily reach 70°C. This means that a compostable packaging isn’t necessarily suitable for compost bins or vermicompost you have at home as the optimum conditions of an industrial composter aren't always achieved in your back garden. 

The breaking down process for a compostable packaging must also comply with the European norm EN13432. Here are four established criteria:

  • The material disintegration time – the composting cycle is of 3 months.
  • The obtained particles must be inferior to 2mm and biodegradable.
  • The quality of the compost obtained must be low in heavy metals and free of ecotoxicity.
  • It shouldn’t cause any disruption, for example it shouldn’t release any harmful substances.

Unlike what we could think, a biodegradable packaging isn’t necessarily compostable due to the break-down time. A biodegradable material must disintegrate of 90% in six months whereas a compostable must disintegrate in three months. 

We have chosen kraft as our packaging as it’s a 100% natural and biodegradable material. This is for us a significant aspect to limit our waste.

 

Biosourced packaging and bioplastics, are they compostable and/or biodegradable?

The notions of biodegradable and biosourced are sometimes mixed up. When we are talking about biosourced packaging, the origin of the material is implicitly referred to, whereas with biodegradability, we refer to a packaging’s end of life. The term bioplastic combines these two aspects: the origin (renewable resource) and its end of life (biodegradable).

A biosourced packaging is a material made from vegetable substances such as corn starch, sugar cane, potato starch, etc., or from petrochemical compounds.

The most common ones are: 

PLA (polylactic acid) is a type of plastic made from sugar or corn starch. It’s often used to replace plastic bags in shops. This material is 100% biodegradable according to the norm EN13432. At Comme Avant, we actually use this material, specifically for the interior coating of our deodorant and toothpaste refills. After lots of research, we chose PLA to stay in line with our zero waste approach. As it’s fully biodegradable, it doesn’t generate any waste!

Plastic bags called oxo-degradable can also be found in certain supermarkets. This packaging is made out of PE (polyethylene) where transition metals have been added to allow this plastic to break down in particles. However, these particles are too big to be assimilated by micro-organisms. This packaging is therefore neither compostable nor biodegradable. This point was confirmed by French Agency for Environment and Energy Management (ADEME). Be careful, some manufacturers add the word ‘bio’ – oxo(bio)degradable – but this is just greenwashing.

We need to be careful about what plastics are used. All aren’t necessarily biodegradable or compostable because, in addition to vegetable material, they can also contain non-biodegradable components. According to the European Bioplastics organisation only around half of the 2,11 million tons of bioplastics made globally in 2019 are biodegradable.

 

So how can we easily identify if a packaging is biodegradable or compostable?

Currently, no official label guarantees a packaging’s biodegradable or compostable nature. However, the TÜV Austria firm has developed a way of distinguishing these aspects based on the EN13432 norm.

Here are their three labels:

Ok Compost Industrial

This label guarantees a packaging can be composted in an industrial composting system.

 

OK Compost Home

This logo relates to home compost bins and guarantees a packaging is compostable even if the conditions are less monitored and temperatures can be lower than in an industrial composting system. A composting bin in your garden will ensure it breaks down. Even though it might take longer, the compost you’ll obtain can be use and the packaging will have been valued.

 

OK Biodegradable

This one guarantees a packaging can break down quickly in a suitable environment.

 

You must keep in mind that it isn’t because a packaging is biodegradable or even compostable that you can dispose of it anywhere! It requires the action of living beings or specific conditions to decompose. It therefore needs to be in an adequate environment to break down.

If you can’t find any of these logos on your packaging, you can ask your supplier or the brand to check if your packaging is biodegradable or compostable.

Comme Avant products don’t have any of these logos. We choose our certifications with care and as mentioned earlier, no official labels yet exist to prove if a packaging is compostable. For this reason, we decided not to go for the TÜV Austria logo. However, we can guarantee you that our packaging’s compostable and biodegradable nature and we can share with you our supplier’s certification for PLA.

 

And in a nutshell, how does it go?

For packaging to be considered as “biodegradable” or “compostable”, it needs to comply with the breakdown process detailed in the EN13432 norm.

Differences between a compostable and biodegradable packaging mainly revolve around the breakdown time (3-month cycle for a compostable packaging and 6 months for a biodegradable one) and the final use. Composted packaging (amongst other input) can be used as natural fertiliser whereas biodegradable packaging is only useful to nature and doesn’t harm it.

We mustn’t forget that a compostable packaging is necessarily biodegradable but the opposite isn’t always valid!

The only flaw is that biodegradable and compostable packaging aren’t a proper solution for sea and ocean pollution. As the breakdown process highly depends on the environment in which it is decomposed, biodegradable packaging won’t always be able to properly break down when it’s in the sea, where the micro-organisms present aren’t necessarily suitable and could down slow the process.

 

In the end, if you have the choice, it’s always best to opt for no packaging at all, just like we offer in our Comme Avant shops with our bulk sections, or simply by adopting a zero waste lifestyle. 😊