Compostable Plastic Packaging – A Quick Guide

19th December 2022

The idea that traditional plastic packaging can be swapped out for a material that looks and feels the same, but that can be composted when it’s no longer needed is an amazing concept.

But is it as simple as chucking that ready meal tray marked as ‘compostable’ out, along with your banana skins and onion peel?

Sadly no, compostable plastics fall into 3 categories, and the category they fall into, determines how they must be disposed of to be composted effectively.

1. Compostable

For ‘compostable’ packaging to break down completely, it needs to be sent off to a specialised, industrial composting plant, where high temperatures and specialised microbes are used.

It’s a quick process, but the lack of these specialised facilities means that many areas of the UK are not covered, and as a result, a huge amount of compostable plastic ends up in landfill, where it takes substantially longer to break down, if at all.

2. Home compostable

As the name suggests, these products can be composted at home, in a regular compost bin. Breakdown of these materials can take a lot longer (about 6-9 months) but it is a much more eco-friendly and sustainable process – the resulting compost can be used in the garden to improve the soil quality.

Note: products and packaging must be certified as ‘home compostable’ to be treated as such.

3. Biodegradable

Biodegradable simply means that the material will naturally disintegrate and decompose. Manufacturers are usually deterred from using this term to describe their products or packaging, as it can be misleading.

Challenges surrounding compostable packaging

Unfortunately, there can be confusion around what to do with compostable packaging when it’s reached its end of life. It’s usually not clear that it needs to be taken to an industrial composting facility to be processed effectively.

Such packaging often ends up the recycling bin by accident, posing a huge contamination risk. It is for this reason that it’s not currently recommended to use biodegradable plastics to replace the packaging of items that consumers are used to recycling, such as water bottles or yoghurt pots.

So, what are compostable plastics ideal for?

Ideal applications for compostable plastics

There are several applications where compostable plastics could prove successful.

Flexible plastic wrap or film is a popular packaging choice among food manufacturers, but it is often not recyclable, or very tricky to recycle. This would make it an ideal contender for compostable plastic, where the consumer could dispose of it into a food waste caddy – particularly when the film itself has been in contact with the food it’s covering.

Speaking of food contamination, ready meal trays are often coated with baked on food, making them hard to clean and therefore unsuitable for general recycling. This presents an ideal opportunity for this type of product to be compostable alongside household food waste.

Lastly, items that regularly end up in the compost bin by accident. Things like tea bags and banana sticker labels often find their way into food waste, so it would make sense for them to be made from compostable alternatives where possible.

The importance of labelling

For compostable plastic packaging to make a positive environmental impact, consumers need to know how to dispose of it correctly to avoid it ending up in conventional recycling facilities causing an adverse effect.

WRAP has released guidance that suggests that manufacturers should label their packaging with advice on how items should be disposed of, instead of statements saying what the packaging material is made from.

Items that need to be sent to an industrial composting facility should be clearly labelled, stating what consumers should do if they’re not located in an area which is covered by any composting plants.

We have a range of coding and marking equipment available that is ideal for printing high-quality, durable information onto compostable plastic. So, if you’re looking to make the switch, we would be happy to support you in finding the optimum solution, while keeping your sustainability goals in mind.