Recyclable vs Compostable vs Biodegradable: what does it mean for packaging?

Written by Sarah Turner

“Recyclable”, “compostable”, and, “biodegradable,” are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably when describing materials.


However, there are important differences between them which are significant – especially when it comes to being less wasteful, using our resources correctly and making sustainable choices.


So, what’s the difference between them?


Recyclable materials can be reprocessed into new products. Following the “reduce, reuse, recycle,” waste hierarchy this prevents resources being lost into landfill or incineration. Items can either be recycled into the same product (e.g. glass bottles into glass bottles) or into a lower grade material (e.g. writing paper into loo roll).


Compostable packaging is developed to break down within 6 – 12 weeks in optimal conditions (composting at home or industrial facilities). Good quality compostable packaging is tested, certified and complies with BS EN 13432.


Biodegradable materials will break down naturally, but there’s no timeframe. A fork that is biodegradable could be buried for years before it begins to break down. ‘Biodegradable’ products are not certified or regulated e.g. cutlery that is 70% organic material and 30% plastic can be sold as ‘biodegradeable’.


Understanding disposal routes

Recycling collections are widely available for glass, cardboard, paper, plastics and dry mixed recycling. Different suppliers offer varied services in each local area.


Compostable materials require special conditions to break down and will not compost in landfill. The infrastructure to collect and transport compostable packaging to composting facilities is growing and expanding all the time but is currently regional and fragmented. Where specific composting collections are not available locally the best option to compost on site.


Food packaging can cause problems when recycling because the food ‘contaminates’ the plastic or card making it more difficult to recycle. For businesses generating high volumes of ‘grab and go’ packaging best practice is to run a front and back of house system.


Front of house: use compostable packaging, segregate the compostable packaging and introduce waste collections going to IVC (or compost on site if there’s space).


Back of house: segregate food waste with collections going to Anaerobic Digestion.


Anaerobic digestion plants and compostable materials    


As we discussed in a previous Insights article, most of what is put into a food waste bin can go to Anaerobic Digestion (AD) or composting. This has led to the misperception that compostable packaging can go into food waste when in the majority of cases compostables cause issues for the AD plants.


AD plants require the right ingredients to produce high quality digestate and energy for biofuel; it’s important that no plastic goes into the mix. For every tonne of food waste recycled by AD as an alternative to landfill, between 0.5 and 1 tonne of CO2 is prevented from entering the atmosphere.


Non-food items  impact the quality of the feed. In significant volumes, paper napkins and compostable packaging can cause problems for the majority of AD plants which are not set up to segregate the materials.



A compostable straw solution


Greene King have launched an industry-first compostable straw solution.


Compostable PLA straws are being introduced across 1,750 Greene King managed pubs as part of their pledge to send zero waste to landfill by 2020. This will remove over 30 million plastic straws from use every year.


We’ve worked closely with Greene King to develop this unique closed loop solution. PLA straws are segregated in the pub, backhauled through the supply chain to a central hub then delivered to an In-Vessel Composter (IVC). The straws decompose at a commercial composting facility.



Disposables guide from the SRA


The Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) has produced a step-by-step guide to businesses phasing out disposables, from coffee cups and drink bottles, to straws, chopsticks, and more. The guide also contains which bins to use, what materials are made of, the reality of where said materials end up, and other useful things to consider.


The guide is fantastic for businesses as it gives them information on how to choose and make informed decisions: https://thesra.org/campaign/plastics/













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Good quality compostable packaging is tested and complies with BS EN 13432 – looking for ‘certified compostable’ can help when choosing products.
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