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Composting Biodegradable Packaging: 9 Dos & Don’ts to Get it Right (Guide)

If you’re feeling confused about composting biodegradable packaging, you’re not alone. 

There are lots of factors that make this a tricky topic, like:

  • Vague and unregulated labels
  • New and changing materials
  • Differences between composting facilities
  • Greenwashing attempts 

And if the wrong packaging material ends up in compost, it may lead to a whole batch being contaminated and wasted. At an industrial scale, this can be a big problem.

That’s why it’s so important to understand what types of packaging are actually compostable. The good news is that we’re here to help you along your composting journey.

In this article, you’ll learn the key dos and don’ts of composting biodegradable packaging. That way, you’ll be prepared to get started with confidence.

What Not to Do – 3 Don’ts for Composting Packaging

1. Don’t: Take Unregulated Terms at Face Value

When you’re looking at packaging labels, you’ll come across a lot of different terms. 

Unfortunately, some companies take advantage of vague terms to make their packaging seem more eco-friendly than it really is. 

If you’re unfamiliar with a term or a certification, do some research before tossing it in your bin. For a breakdown of common terms, be sure to check out the rest of our tips.

2. Don’t: Mix Up Items That Are Home and Industrially Compostable

Home composting and industrial composting may seem similar on the surface. But they’re actually very different processes.

When you compost at home, you might use:

  • Tumbler composters
  • Cold piles
  • Simple bins
  • Vermicomposting

Home composting gives you an easy way to repurpose fruit and vegetable scraps. You can even compost other materials like grass clippings, tea leaves, and paper.

Home compost bucket

But not all types of compostable packaging will break down in your home compost pile. 

This is because industrial composting facilities use specific methods to help items biodegrade, such as:

  • High temperatures
  • Controlled pressure and humidity
  • Specialized equipment
  • Microorganisms like bacteria
  • Large-scale piles or rows

If you’re not sure if the packaging is home or industrially compostable, you can always ask your local composting facility. And that brings us to our next composting “don’t.”

3. Don’t: Send Items to Your Municipal Composter Without Checking 

From government-run composters to private companies, every operation is unique.

 Since facilities use different methods, they may not accept all materials. 

Some large-scale composters will take packaging like bioplastics, compostable cutlery, or cardboard. Others only take food scraps.

If you send the wrong kind of materials to your composter, it can lead to contamination or even spoiled batches.

Take a look at this video by NowThis Earth:

So before you add any packaging to your collection bin, check out your facility’s website or give them a call. Ask what materials they accept and how you should prepare them.

If you’re not sure if you have a composter near you, you can:

  • Search the internet
  • Check out your local directory or yellow pages
  • Call your city hall and ask
  • Find a database or directory like Litterless

Now that we’ve covered the “don’ts,” we can move on to the “dos” of composting biodegradable packaging.

6 Things to Do: How to Compost Packaging Correctly

Here are the six tips to compost your product packaging correctly:

1. Do: Know the Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging

We’ve already touched on the challenge of making sense of labels. 

Now it’s time for a deeper dive because understanding common terms is critical to successful composting. 

Why? Because most degradable plastics are not actually good for the environment. This even includes many biobased or “biodegradable” packaging choices. 

Knowing the difference between packaging terms empowers you to make more sustainable choices when you shop — and dispose of used packaging properly.

Four of the most common umbrella terms you’ll see are:

  • Degradable
  • Oxo-Degradable
  • Biodegradable
  • Compostable

Let’s take a closer look at each of these labels and the possible pitfalls of each. 

What Is Degradable Packaging?

“Degradable” simply means something that will break down over time. 

There is no regulation of this vague word. This means you have no guarantee about how long it takes for packaging to break down, what it leaves behind, or how safe it is for the environment.

When you’re deciding if the packaging is compostable, the term “degradable” doesn’t give you enough information on its own. If an item is only marked “degradable” and you’re not able to find any more details, send it to the landfill.

What Is Oxo-Degradable Packaging?

Over a decade ago, some companies added this label to their packaging. 

Sadly, this is an example of textbook greenwashing. 

Oxo-degradable packaging is made by adding an additive to plastic. The additive causes the plastic to break down when exposed to oxygen over time. But what’s left behind are microplastics, a dangerous source of pollution. 

Oxo-degradable products aren’t recyclable or compostable. If you can’t find a way to reuse the packaging, send it to the landfill.

What Is Biodegradable Packaging?

“Biodegradable” means that a material can be broken down by bacteria, fungi, or other microorganisms. 

Since this term isn’t regulated, there’s no time limit on how long it takes to break down. Technically, almost any material is biodegradable over a long enough period. And companies who use this label aren’t required to test their products for toxins or harmful chemicals. 

Some products marked as biodegradable are safe and eco-friendly. But on its own, this label still doesn’t give you enough information to decide if the packaging is compostable.

Image text says "Biodegradable vs Compostable"

What Is Compostable Packaging?

Unlike the previous three terms, “compostable” is a more strictly regulated term. 

Certified compostable products and packaging must meet the following guidelines:

  • Break down into natural elements without releasing toxins
  • Decompose under standard composting conditions within a set timeframe
  • Contribute to creating nutrient-rich compost

Compostable packaging is biodegradable, but it goes a step further. It’s tested and proven to be safe for the environment when processed correctly. Unlike some other options, certified compostable packaging won’t leave behind microplastics or harmful chemicals.

2. Do: Look for Trusted Composting Certifications

To get certified, companies must have their packaging tested and their claims verified by governing bodies.

Four trusted composting certifications include:

  • ASTM D4600: Covers items containing bioplastic
  • ASTM D6868: Covers fiber-based materials with or without bioplastic
  • BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute): Uses stringent testing for compostability, considered one of the most comprehensive certifications
  • CMA (Compost Manufacturing Alliance): Provides technical review and certification
  • TUV Austria (Europe): Tests compostable products thoroughly, considered the European equivalent of BPO certification

Some products may also be labeled “certified home compostable.” In Europe, TUV Austria provides a tested OK compost HOME certification. There isn’t an equivalent certification in the United States yet. 

If the packaging says it’s certified for composting at home, check for instructions on how to process it. Then, if you still have questions, visit the company’s website or reach out for more information.

3. Do: Know the Basics of Commonly Compostable Packaging Materials

Looking for certifications is a helpful way to figure out what you can safely add to your compost pile. 

But there are some materials that are generally considered compostable — even if they don’t carry a certification.

Here is a quick breakdown of common packaging materials and where they fall on this spectrum.

Generally Compostable Materials

These materials are generally considered safe for composting. 

They’re typically free from harmful additives. When prepared correctly, they’ll break down in most home compost piles.

  • Uncoated, uncolored, non-glossy paper
  • Uncoated paper bags
  • Uncoated cardboard (without tape or glue)
  • Uncolored tissue paper or paper shreds
  • Plant fibers like bamboo or coconut

Remember that your local composting facility may or may not accept these items. Before you send them along, be sure to check their guidelines.

Materials That May Be Compostable

Items on this list might be safe to compost, but be sure to get more information first. 

For example, some printed or colored packaging is made with special plant-based ink for composting. Others use plastic-based printing materials that aren’t safe to compost.

  • Bioplastic bags or films
  • Bio-based utensils
  • Cartons
  • Coated cardboard and paper
  • Colored or printed paper
  • Plant-based tape

Some bioplastic is home compostable, but most will only break down under industrial conditions. If you have materials on this list, you should: 

  1. Check for certifications on the label
  2. Look at the company’s website for more information
  3. Ask your local facility before adding it to your collection bin

When in doubt, send it to the landfill rather than the compost pile. 

Generally Non-Compostable Materials

While there may be some exceptions, these items are generally not safe to compost. 

  • Hard plastics
  • Multi-layered cartons or tetrapaks
  • Mixed material packaging
  • Petroleum-based bags or films
  • Plastic-based tape
  • Glossy paper

If you have recycling services available near you, check their guidelines. You may be able to send some of your non-compostable packaging to them instead of to the landfill.

4. Do: Prepare Your Packaging for Proper Composting

Whether you’re composting biodegradable packaging at home or sending it to a facility, preparation is essential. 

For composting at home, prepare packaging by: 

  • Shredding paper and cardboard
  • Removing any non-compostable items like tape or tags
  • Clearing food residue or oil from plastics

Check with your local composting facility to see if they have specific requirements. If not, a good rule of thumb is to make sure the packaging is clean and free from anything non-compostable.

Shredded paper and cardboard

5. Do: Put Your Compost to Good Use

You’ve put in a lot of effort to get to this point. 

Now you’re armed with nutrient-rich compost you can use around your home and garden. Here are five ways you can take advantage of compost’s unique benefits:

  1. Fill planters and pots with compost instead of using packaged soil
  2. Add a layer of compost to raised beds before planting
  3. Use compost to start garden seeds
  4. Cover garden beds with compost before the winter
  5. Put compost in your chicken run to let them dig and root for insects

Compost can help improve water retention, soil health, and plant growth. So wherever you decide to use it, you’ll start to reap the rewards before you know it.

6. Do: Keep Trying — Your Efforts Make a Difference!

Learning the ins and outs of composting biodegradable packaging can feel like a lot at first.

But don’t quit. Composting is worth it! 

By composting, you’re helping to:

  • Reduce waste
  • Reclaim natural resources
  • Sequester carbon
  • Promote healthy soil
  • Create more resilient ecosystems
  • Work toward a more circular economy

Now that you know the basics, you can start composting biodegradable packaging with confidence. And you’ll be making a difference for the planet all along the way. 

About the Author

Image of the Author: Saloni DoshiSaloni Doshi is the CEO and Chief Sustainability Geek at EcoEnclose, an innovative sustainable packaging and shipping solution supplier for e-commerce brands. She loves using EcoEnclose’s Sustainable Packaging Framework to help business owners make the transition to sustainable packaging in a way that feels approachable and lets their products shine.

References & Useful Resources

UrthPact: Composting Certifications

BPI World: Biodegradable VS Compostable

EPA: Composting at Home

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