With the continued growth of online shopping (the market grew by 900 million people from 2021 to 2022 alone), it’s safe to say that the need for packaging isn’t going anywhere—except up.
These consumer trends fuel the need for new sustainable packaging solutions like compostable packaging, an organic, biodegradable product whose sales are projected to reach $28.8 billion USD by 2029.
It’s not hard to admit that there’s something that just feels good about a piece of packaging that says “This box is 100% compostable.” But what exactly does that mean? Is compostable packaging actually a viable solution to our waste problem, or does it do more greenwashing than good?
In theory, compostable packaging sounds like a great solution. A box that will decompose and return to the soil as nourishment? If it’s really that simple, sign us up.
Like most things in the packaging world, it’s not that simple.
For compostable packaging to properly decompose, it must be handled in one of two very specific ways.
In an ideal world, after you ship your products in compostable packaging…
But in reality, that’s just not the case.
It’s clear that industrial facilities play a key role in the success of compostable packaging. However, not all cities have industrial composting facilities, and the facilities that do exist often refuse packaging.
Why do most facilities refuse compostable packaging? Well, they prefer to prioritize food and yard waste, as it’s much faster to decompose. The food and yard waste is typically ready to be resold to farmers as compost within 90-130 days, allowing the composting facility to turn a quick profit.
Compostable packaging, on the other hand, can take up to six months to decompose in an industrial facility. These composting sites are hesitant to mix packaging with food & yard scraps since they have different decomposition timelines. When the food waste is ready to be sold as compost, the packaging waste must be filtered out and recirculated through the composter. For many facilities, this isn’t worth the trouble, so the compostable packaging ends up in a landfill.
Not to mention, even if a commercial facility does accept compostable packaging, many of the bioplastics look a lot like regular plastic. It’s common for sorters to mistake them for trash and send them to a landfill regardless. In a landfill, the conditions aren’t right for healthy decomposition, so the compostable packaging ends up lingering and creating similar problems as their fossil-fuel-based counterparts.
When it comes to at-home composting, there’s plenty of room for error. For example, if the home is experiencing lower-than-average temperatures or the compost heap is simply not thriving, the compostable packaging may not decompose as expected.
It’s also suspected that many compostable packaging items do not decompose in the suggested time frame, even under the right conditions. An ongoing investigation at UCL called the Big Compost Experiment measures the success of at-home composting by asking the public to directly report their results, finding the following:
We don’t intend for this article to exist as an argument against compostable packaging. Rather, we hope it serves as a discussion starter about which packaging solutions are most realistic and effective at this point in time—and flexible enough to adapt to the times. To help facilitate the discussion about what we can do to improve the compostable packaging landscape, we’ve outlined some important points below. We encourage you to start with these, as we do the same.
At GPA Global, we’re committed to providing tailored packaging solutions that minimize waste (and overall environmental impact) from the start. Our designers, engineers, craftsmen, and logistical specialists work with you every step of the way to deliver a bespoke solution that makes the most sense for your brand, the planet, and its people. Whether that’s compostable packaging, recyclable packaging, or a unique combination—you can be sure our packaging solutions consider the product’s entire lifecycle, avoid unintended negative impacts, and utilize methods and materials that are backed by data.