It’s an exciting time in foodservice ware as companies and consumers increasingly seek to reduce their carbon footprint and improve waste diversion. But with evolution there is often confusion, misconception and misinformation. 

Compostable Is Not the Same as Biodegradable

It’s commonly assumed that biodegradable and compostable are the same, but each has different meaning. The term “compostable” means a product can turn back into carbon dioxide, water or inorganic compounds, biomass at a rate similar to paper, disintegrate by at least 90 percent within 180 days, and leave behind no toxic residues in the conditions of a composting operation. Compostable products are often certified compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), a third-party certification system.

“Biodegradable” in contrast is not based on specific timeframes. The life cycle of biodegradable products can vary by a range of factors, including materials used and environmental conditions, such as moisture or temperature. Biodegradable products are also not verified, and many are not compostable. It’s important not to confuse the two or utilize the terms interchangeably given these differences.

Composting Infrastructure and Residential Compost Collection Is Growing

While the composting industry is still growing, more than 60 facilities nationwide currently accept some form of compostable packaging, and 326 communities and over 5.1 million households have access to curbside service. Many municipalities across the country are beginning to offer access to composting services. It’s not unlike the evolution of electric cars. Charging infrastructure was initially limited, but has grown to more than 22,000 stations nationwide and millions of consumers use electric vehicles today.

Food service businesses that seek compostable products largely take access to composting facilities into consideration as they make the change. For example, World Centric customer Snap Kitchen is headquartered in Austin, TX, where residential composting is available on the municipal level and there are specific composting operations that will accept compostable packaging.

Compostable Packaging Is Environmentally Preferable Even if not Composted

It’s also often misconceived that compostable products have no environmental value if they don’t make it to a composting facility. This is untrue. If compostable products end up in a landfill, they will not leach phthalates, bisphenols, and other chemicals commonly used in plastic. This leachate, or water coming out of landfills, is a source of groundwater pollution and is frequently overlooked when considering the negative effects of landfills.

Compostable packaging has environmental benefits because it uses plant fibers made from agricultural by-products, rather than nonrenewable petroleum. While it’s ultimately most beneficial for compostable packaging to be treated in a compost facility, if it doesn’t get composted it is still often better for the environment than plastic.

Compostable Packaging Life Cycle Has Less Environmental Impact Than Plastic

Various life cycle analyses on compostable packaging demonstrate that compostable materials have lower environmental impacts than traditional plastic packaging. A life cycle analysis is a tool that looks at the impact of sourcing, manufacturing, and transporting a product.

Compostable products use less water, require less energy, and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions during the manufacturing process. This is true for both products made from plant fiber and compostable bioplastics.

Plastic packaging, on the other hand, generates more greenhouse gas emissions because it is dependent on fossil fuel extraction and processing. There are also uncalculated negative impacts from disposal, because plastic packaging is usually too dirty to be recycled (see below), and instead ends up as litter or in the landfill.

Recyclable Packaging Frequently Does Not Get Recycled

Because of recent Chinese and Southeast Asian import restrictions on recyclable material (known as the National Sword), many types of plastic and paper are not getting recycled. These countries traditionally accepted and processed most of the United States’ recyclable material, but no longer want to be a “dumping ground” for dirty, low-value material.

As a result, many municipal recycling collection programs have limited what items they allow in the recycling stream or now landfill recyclable material, particularly. mixed paper and plastics. Globally, just 9 percent of plastics have been recycled.

Any material sent overseas for recycling must now meet strict limits on contamination. Most importantly, it must be clean and dry, which is not possible with food. This leads to composting as the best disposal option for packaging for the food industry.

Compostable Packaging Manufacturing Process Is Better For The Environment

There is an argument that any industrially manufactured product -- regardless of material -- requires energy from fossil fuels, including those that use materials from the earth. While this is true, compostable products are made from quickly renewable agricultural byproducts, require less energy to manufacture, generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions during manufacturing, and are far less toxic than petroleum-based plastic packaging.

World Centric includes the energy required for the manufacture of compostable products into their carbon calculations. The company offsets 100 percent of its carbon emissions, including emissions associated with manufacturing and energy use.

The Future of Compostable Packaging Is Promising

Compostable foodservice ware is at an early stage. However, companies are thriving even as they wait for composting facilities to increase across the country because of the clear environmental benefits and growing market demand. Like dozens of companies in innovative and disruptive markets, they operate in pace with the evolution and growth of a promising future.

Not only is market opportunity for compostable packaging products rising, composting infrastructure will continue to grow in availability in response to state and municipal legislation that requires diversion of organic material from the landfill. Without question, a new era of foodservice packaging lies ahead.