Sustainable Packaging: Biodegradable or Compostable?

In the ever-evolving world of sustainable packaging there’re two terms we see used often: Biodegradable and compostable. They may seem interchangeable, but there are a few key differences between the two.

So what does it mean to be “Biodegradable”?

Compostable vs Biodegradable
Image from Heritage Paper

The meaning of “biodegradable” can be found right in the name. Items that are biodegradable degrade through biological processes – usually microbes or bacteria eat away at them over time, breaking them down to basic minerals and materials to return to the earth.

Fruits and vegetables over time will soften and break down. Untreated wood products rot and break apart. Even metals like steel will rust away and some plastics will break down, but processes like those aren’t usually pushed along by bacteria and can take anywhere from years to lifetimes to degrade. 

How about when something is labeled “Compostable”?

The idea of compostability is that products and packages degrade quickly, naturally, and without releasing other harmful materials. It’s also a legally protected term. For something to be labeled “compostable” and sold in the United States, it must biodegrade in a short time (usually on the scale of a few months) and it must NOT release dangerous amounts of byproducts that are toxic or harmful. You can read U.S. FTC recommendations and guidelines on their website, in the “Compostable” section.

Maryland recently enacted laws of its own to protect the “compostable” label further than the federal minimum, and California did the same. Be sure to check out your regional laws and movements to see how else the terms are regulated, as they can vary slightly from state to state.

Some cities, including Boise, have a composting program that collects lawn and food waste and converts them to nutrient-rich humus. This is then available to homeowners to enrich their yard and garden soil. 

Composting can happen industrially or in a personal compost program. If something is not easily composted as part of a home composting project, it will be disclosed on the package.

A Side-by-Side comparison :

Biodegradable

• Breaks down over time due to natural processes

• Can include plastics and metals

• Can release various byproducts while degrading

• Unregulated in most of the U.S. You do not need to be certified to call out “Biodegradable” on a package.

Compostable

• Breaks down over a short time due to natural processes

• Generally does not include plastics and metals

• Can release non-harmful byproducts while degrading

• Regulated and protected in the U.S. You must prove compostability to call out “Compostable” on a package.

The number of compostable packages and products out there is always growing, and take a big burden off our environment. Keep an eye out for our own team’s projects involving sustainable and compostable packages!

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Tom Foerstel : Founder & President

Tom Foerstel

Founder & President

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60’s, Tom developed a strong desire to create positive change for people and planet.

 

He went on to pursue his passion for art and design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and worked for design firms in Southern California before moving to Boise, Idaho in the early 80’s. Foerstel Design opened its doors in 1985. Since its inception, the firm has cultivated a bold, happy, forward-looking team focussed on creating distinct and effective work on behalf of their clients.

 

An integral part of Tom’s philosophy is giving back to the community in which he lives — a company cornerstone that drives Foerstel’s long history of providing pro-bono services to local non-profit humanitarian and arts programs.

 

One of Tom’s proudest personal achievements is his ability to say Supercalifragilisticexpyalidocious backwards.