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Understanding Recyclable, Biodegradable, and Compostable Packaging

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  • Understanding Recyclable, Biodegradable, and Compostable Packaging
14 Jul 2021

During discussions with current and potential clients, it’s not unusual for brand owners to say they’re looking for Eco-friendly packaging options. In response, we ask the client, “What are your Eco-friendly goals?” Most times, they respond, “I want my packaging to be recyclable.” This answer leads to a deeper discussion about Eco-friendly terms such as recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable in relation to packaging.

In an earlier blog, Recycling, Packaging, and the Environment, we discussed the importance of considering the life cycle of a given type of packaging, especially when clients are looking to reduce landfill waste or create fewer greenhouse gasses. In this post, we’ll analyze Eco-friendly terms and their relationship to packaging options. 

What is Recyclable Packaging?

Let’s begin by defining the word recycle. In its most basic sense, recycle means converting waste into reusable material. For example, used beverage containers made from aluminum, plastic, or glass can be recycled. Each of these materials has its advantages and disadvantages. 

As an infinitely recyclable metal, aluminum may appear to be the best choice for a beverage container versus a plastic or glass bottle. Aluminum cans are indeed 100% recyclable, but only 43% of a can on the store shelf is composed of post-consumer used beverage cans, according to the Aluminum Association’s September 2019, Aluminum Can KPI Report. Newly produced virgin aluminum and added alloying elements make up 27% of a recycled can. The balance comes from end-of-life products from other market sectors and manufacturing scrap from different industries, including building and transportation. One of those “other market sectors” includes SunDance. Last year, SunDance recycled 10,400 pounds of aluminum from products we use in our plant.

While aluminum can be recycled, it’s essential to understand that it loses quality each time it is recycled. So a product made with new aluminum will be of higher quality than the recycled product. The same holds true with plastic. While a plastic bottle can be recycled, the same piece of plastic can only be recycled about 2-3 times before its quality decreases to the point where it can no longer be used. That means each time plastic is recycled, additional virgin material is added to improve its quality.

Glass is 100% recyclable. It has an unlimited life and can be melted and recycled endlessly to make new glass products with no loss in quality. At the same time, glass bottles break easier than plastic bottles. If you consider transportation and shipping costs, the weight difference between aluminum, plastic, and glass will result in more or less fuel during transportation.

Aluminum, plastic, and glass containers can all be recycled, but they still impact the environment. Choosing the best packaging solution for your product should include more than the recyclability of the materials.

What is Biodegradable Packaging?

Biodegradable is defined as a substance or object capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. For example, cardboard, paperboard, and paper are biodegradable. When these materials are placed in a compost heap, they will break down. Cardboard, for example. takes about two months to decompose in a backyard compost heap.

Cardboard, paperboard, and paper can also be recycled, but only if they are clean. You cannot put soiled pizza boxes, paper towels, and egg cartons into the curbside pickup bins, but you can put them into a compost heap when these products have served their purpose. 

In addition to wood-based biodegradable products, some suppliers produce flexible substrates using plant-based natural polymers such as wood pulp or short cotton fibers. These cellulose substrates are suitable for use with coffee and tea packaging, snack bags, stick packs, and confectionery packaging. These substrates have a high oxygen barrier, provide excellent grease resistance, and protect against mineral oil contamination. These cellulose films are considered a compostable packaging solution.

Another biodegradable packaging solution can be found in bioplastic products made with natural materials, such as cornstarch, rice, potato, and sweet potato starch. For example, some restaurants are using compostable cutlery made from these materials. These materials, too, are compostable. 

While biodegradable products made from wood, cellulose, and starch-based materials are compostable, we need to understand what the term “compostable” means.


What is Compostable Packaging?

When most people think of the word “compost,” they imagine a mixture of ingredients used to improve the soil in their yard. Some people have compost bins in their backyard where they place grass clippings, food waste, and other organic materials. These materials, along with worms, insects, water, and heat, break down organics into a product, compost, that can be used to fertilize plants and lawns.

Composting also happens on a more significant level. Many cities provide a “green bin” along with the garbage and recycling bins used to reduce the number of materials sent to landfills. Most municipalities allow individuals to place leaves, tree branches, and other yard waste into these green bins.

In addition to the backyard and municipal compost programs that provide an eco-friendly alternative to landfills, there are also commercial or industrial composting facilities. Each of these facilities serves a specific purpose.

These composting options provide brand owners with an opportunity to engage in some environmental education. Biodegradable and compostable packaging options require brand owners to consider end-of-life management that’s easy and feasible for consumers. This can be a great way to promote a company as forward-thinking concerning the environment.

Most biodegradable and compostable plant-based polymer packaging cannot be placed in a home compost heap or a city’s composting yard. These types of wood, cellulose, and starch-based products are only compostable under industrial conditions because they need to be heated to 158°F. These composting facilities can be found around the country. In Florida, industrial composting facilities are located outside of Miami, Tampa, and Orlando.

Understanding Recyclable, Biodegradable, and Compostable Packaging

When it comes to eco-friendly options, brand owners should weigh the pros and cons of recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable packaging. While there’s no perfect green packaging solution, SunDance provides an array of packaging options to help clients meet their Eco-friendly goals.

Contact us today to request a quote or call us 407-734-7444 to learn more about our environmentally friendly packaging!

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