The Dirt On Compostable Packaging

pile of organic floral compost in rustic wooden crate

Written by Nancy

May 5, 2021

The dirt on compostable packaging

Sustainable packaging is growing in popularity as brands of all sizes strive to be more eco-friendly.
You’ve probably seen packaging on the shelves with claims like “plant based”, “100% compostable” and “biodegradable” which all sounds pretty green right?

Compostable packaging is a relatively “new” market offering many different materials from bioplastic to mushroom fibre, but what is the dirt on compostable packaging?

First, let’s define compostable packaging – compostable packaging is packaging made from organic material that can decompose fully in a home or industrial compost (a controlled organic environment) and be used again as nutrient rich soil called compost. This packaging can come in many different forms such as PLA plastic, recycled cardboard or bamboo pulp containers to name a few.

For the packaging to be fully compostable it’s important that the inks, finishes, labels and adhesives are also made of compostable materials otherwise they will contaminate the entire compost container.

Some mainstream compostable packaging and products available at the moment include:

• Compostable mailer bags
• Plant based packing peanuts
• Bioplastic bin bags and dog poop bags
• Biobased food service packaging containers
• Compostable coffee cups
• Bamboo pulp plates and containers

Look for the Australian Standard Composting Labels
In Australia we have certification and standardisation for compostable packaging where AS5810 refers to Home Compostable and AS4736 is Industrial Compostable. The differences between the two methods are quite significant. See bioplastics.org.au for more information and for how to get certified.

 

Australian Standards Compost Logos

As I dig through heaps of information on compostable packaging, I have come across many interesting facts about composting in Australia. I thought it would easiest to show this in diagram form. So here you go!

yellow circle diagrams explaining the facts on organic waste in Australia

(The Fun Facts:
The information in these diagrams is courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Statistics data gained from a study held in 2018-2019 in Australia.

  • 20% of total landfill waste is organic waste (which could be easily recycled)
  • Australia has approx 150 commercial composting and organic recycling facilities (according to the Australian Bioplastics Association)
  • Australia generated 15.3 million tonnes of organic waste (2018-2019) and 42% of that was recycled, the rest went to landfill. I assume the other 13% is uncaptured waste floating around our parks and oceans.
  • Households are the biggest contributor to organic waste with manufacturing coming in second.

 

The good

I believe compostable packaging can be part of creating a truly circular system by:

1. Helping to reduce our dependence on single use plastic and conventional plastic packaging
2. Diverting waste from landfill 
3. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by having less waste rotting in landfills 
4. And, lastly we already have certification and standardisation in place to ensure compliance and regulation. So that’s one thing sorted.

Sound pretty great doesn’t it? But now I’m going to open a big can of worms…

The bad

Having said all that, I don’t believe composable packaging is currently a great solution in Australia because:

1. There is a lack of green waste collection and infrastructure. It varies from council to council.
2. Most recycling facilities don’t accept compostable packaging
3. Most compostable packaging is not designed for home compost
4. Consumers don’t understand how to correctly dispose of compostable packaging and items
5. Retailers and brand owners don’t have control over the responsible disposal of packaging at end of life
6. All components of the package must compostable to avoid contamination

And lastly here’s another fun fact, I noted above that the majority of organic waste is coming from household waste (food, garden and organic packaging) However, according to a survey conducted by Closed Loop, only 34% of Australians are currently composting. Common reasons for not composting include, not having a garden to put the compost in and not understanding how to dispose of the compostable packaging.

This says to me that for compostable packaging to be a viable option, we first need leadership from our government and local councils. Funding and planning is needed to and create the infrastructure and education to support compostable packaging waste recovery. 

Considerations

So, if you are a brand owner who cares about the environment, here is my humble opinion. Simply choosing compostable packaging for your product is not going to change our packaging waste crisis (yet).

When considering using compostable packaging:
1. First, ask if your packaging can be designed to be reusable instead?
2. Make sure your packaging complies to the Australian Standard Composting and is certified with the AS4736 or AS5810 seedling logo.
3. Don’t rely on the seedling logo to do all the work though. You should also communicate to your consumer how to correctly dispose of the packaging (APCO offers recommended statements to use in their Considerations for Compostable Packaging document here.)
4. Maybe you want to create your own circular system and set up a company collection system where you can ensure your brand packaging is being disposed and composted correctly. 

Just remember anything that is going to landfill is waste, so the goal is to keep packaging out of landfill in the first place, compostable or not.

One of my favourite things about my job as a green graphic designer is helping brand owners find more circular design options for their packaging and business.  Get in touch to find out more. Let’s chat! 

 

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