Breaking down the barriers to biodegradable packaging adoption

Lars Sandberg
17 July, 23

Forecasts expect the global market for sustainable packaging to grow at a CAGR of 5.6% between 2023 and 2029, and surpass $137B in that time, driving significant progress away from our dependence on plastics. However, there is currently a lack of clear guidelines around sustainable products and materials, meaning few businesses can make informed decisions that minimise plastic pollution and support their sustainability targets.

One solution to the world’s plastic waste crisis includes increasing the use of biodegradable materials, but firmer regulation is needed worldwide to ensure they are a viable option for businesses and consumers. 

A study published in 2019 tested the deterioration of biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, compostable, and conventional carrier bag materials in air, soil, and seawater over three years; the results revealed none could reliably deteriorate in all environments within that time frame. This underscores the necessity of clear standardisation around terms such as biodegradable to ensure businesses can trust the products they adopt are making a difference.

What are the benefits of biodegradable packaging?

Within the conversations around sustainable packaging, there are concerns that promoting the use of biodegradable materials will encourage littering. In light of this, there has been a strong focus on packaging’s recyclability. 

However, while recycling is a vital part of sustainable waste management, the unfortunate truth is that conventional plastic packaging already ends up in nature; up to 10 million metric tons of plastic pollute the world’s oceans each year. In reality, progressing the use of truly biodegradable materials will reduce the negative environmental impact of mismanaged waste and ensure products can break down and return to nature at the end of their lifecycle without producing harmful micro plastics.

Ideally, sustainable packaging needs to be both recyclable and biodegradable. By clearly communicating how end users should dispose of packaging, businesses can help ensure products are disposed of via established waste management systems rather than polluting nature. To do that, they need the help of standardised terms and science-backed certifications. 

Biodegradable vs. compostable

While “biodegradable” and “compostable” are often incorrectly used interchangeably, defining these terms is the first key step towards standardisation.

Qualities of biodegradable materials: When disposed of conventionally, biodegradable packaging will completely break down in nature within a short time frame and do so without creating harmful microplastics. The composition of packaging materials is important for ensuring this. Extensive chemical modifications can compromise a material’s biodegradability, for instance, whereas bio-based materials such as paper fibre in its natural state retain the ability to break down.

At present there is no widely adopted standard for biodegradability, but the European Commission recommends that a biodegradable product states which environment it can break down in, under what conditions, and how long this takes. 

Qualities of compostable materials: Composting is a form of biodegradation, where materials re-enter the ecosystem under specific conditions without causing harm. They will almost completely disappear within compost, which can then be used as a soil conditioner. 

Compostable packaging can be created using bio-based or fossil-based materials and properly disposing of it usually requires industrial scale composting. This involves artificially raised temperature and humidity levels to break down materials, in comparison to domestic composting, where materials are exposed to ambient conditions. There is also a need for clearer certification around the materials that will break down in domestic compost piles.

The most widely adopted standard for compostable materials is EN 13432, which both the UK and the EU follow, and it requires packaging to pass multiple tests including:

  • An analysis to identify the natural origin of packaging materials and any environmental damage they could cause.
  • A test that simulates the industrial organic waste treatment process to verify the material is compostable. 
  • An ecotoxicity test of the compost produced to evaluate any effects on higher plants, such as trees and shrubs.

Biodegradable materials should be as verifiable as compostable materials

To certify compostable materials, independent bodies offer evaluation services to ensure products meet the criteria of the EN 13432. The UK’s Association for Organics Recycling operates a scheme in partnership with the German certification body Din Certco, which necessitates that all elements of packaging, including materials and additives such as printing inks, must pass the tests. The certification is valid for three years and then must be renewed.

Certified products also receive a unique certification number that enables consumers to track the product from its source. If products display this number, they can use logos such as the PAP 21 symbol with chasing arrows or the European Bioplastics’ “compostable seedling” logo.

For biodegradability, local certifications like “OK Biodegradable” from TUV-Austria and the French Standard NF T 51-800 verify if products can break down in soil, marine, and water environments. These certifications can form a basis for future standards, but more must be done to achieve standardisation on a global scale.

The components of a standardised approach to biodegradable packaging

The journey towards sustainability is ongoing and accelerating the standardisation of biodegradable packaging depends on:

  • Promotion and visibility: Driving greater awareness and education around sustainable certifications will help companies and consumers understand their value and encourage businesses, for instance those in the CPG and FMCG sectors, to prioritise certifying their products.
  • Clarity and simplicity: Alongside standardising the terms used for certain products and materials, logos that are clear and easily understandable across markets will contribute to greater uptake.
  • Compatibility: Certifications should also consider existing waste streams and how materials can be managed within them. The more efficiently materials can be processed, the more viable they are for both businesses and consumers, which in turn will streamline the adoption of biodegradable materials as a like-for-like alternative to plastics.

It is necessary for biodegradable packaging to be tested and certified before entering the market, and making this best practice will break down the barriers to biodegradable packaging adoption. By guaranteeing that packaging is truly environmentally safe, businesses will be confident when investing in sustainable alternatives to plastic. Ensuring these alternatives can be introduced into established waste management systems will also streamline the transition away from plastics. We need to accelerate this transition now to make an impactful difference to the world’s plastic pollution problem.

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