Sustainable packaging has become a must for genuinely-interested-in-sustainability businesses and looking-to-appear-interested-in-sustainability businesses alike. Hence the recent abundance of packaging with labels that imbue a sense of sustainability such as ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’. Yet many of these terms are deceptive, relying upon something called ‘green myths’. Green myths are false but pervasive ideas about what constitutes a sustainable or beneficial product from a social and environmental perspective. For example: the idea that paper is an “eco-friendly” material and plastic is not.
Want to avoid having the wool pulled over your eyes when it comes to sustainable packaging? Allow me break it down for you:
Oh-so popular a term but oh-so vague, as it turns out. Degradable simply means that the product will break down into smaller pieces to the extent that some of the pieces will be invisible to the naked eye. Given enough time, pretty much all materials fit the bill. Excellent news, no? No indeed. Even though the remnants are small, their detrimental effect can be widespread. Microplastics are a prime example of how ‘degraded’ material can result in mass devastation of precious and delicate ecosystems.
Whether or not something is degradable, it can be seen, bares little relevance to its environmental soundness.
Summary: a bit of a step up. The ‘bio’ prefix means it will breakdown into natural components. There are a couple of caveats though. First, specific conditions need to be met in order for the item to biodegrade and microorganisms, fungi or bacteria need to be present. Second, natural doesn’t necessarily equate to nontoxic. Many biodegradable materials release dangerous chemicals or other harmful materials in the soil. Finally, and perhaps most critically, the term biodegradable can be thrown around without specific reference to how long the product will take to break down, or the conditions required for breakdown to occur. It’s therefore a similarly vague term.
Industrially compostable products come with the certification AS4736 for Australia. To attain this certification, industrially compostable products need to disintegrate in 12 weeks and biodegrade after 6 months into CO2, water and biomass (valuable compost).
As the name helpfully indicates, industrial facilities are required for the product to break down. This usually entails the items being spun and kept at temperatures between 50°C and 60°C. Looking at things from a holistic viewpoint (as we surely must) this decidedly large energy output is problematic in and of itself. They can still break down in your home compost but it will take considerably more time.
Drawbacks considered, industrial compostable materials are still preferable to plastics, especially if the barrier of limited government support is overcome.
Bringing it back to the home front, items that are home compostable come with the certification AS5810 and are certified to break down in your compost bin at home within 180 days (the certification includes a worm toxicity test for the worm farm enthusiasts). Composting utilizes a diverse microbial population in a moist, warm aerobic environment to fast-track degradation of heterogeneous organic matter.
Home compostable items are converted into compost and CO2, invaluable for improving your soil’s nutrient levels which in turn makes for efficient and sustainable production of crops. (Genuinely) compostable items eliminate waste and methane production, and therefore take home the ‘most sustainable approach to disposal’ trophy.
The best solution we can see, given that most people are time poor and don't have a home compost system, is what's called landfill biodegradable. Whilst home compostable bags are great, they don't go well in landfill or recycle bins, or even green waste bins, so landfill biodegradable is a great solution. Under anaerobic conditions such as landfills, these 'plastics' contain an organic material that makes them degrade 90+% faster than regular plastic and leave no microplastics behind. We love www.biogone.com.au for their amazing products and we purchase our mailer bags for postage from them.
Wrapping it up:
As individuals and business owners, we must be wary of green myths, many of which describe the properties of a material rather than the actual benefits. Terms like biodegradable, recyclable, and renewable are heart-warming terms that lull us into a false sense of security, as they only look only at end of life and describe a best-case-scenario where the product is disposed of responsibly. Just because something could biodegrade, it does not mean it will. Furthermore, if they get into the wrong systems, these properties can actually have a negative environmental impact. Biodegradable items are harmful in landfill, for example.
In order to avoid the trap of allowing appealing buzzwords to take the place of genuine sustainability, we must take a holistic, big picture approach and look at how a product is made, used and handled at the end of its life. With each of us accepting responsibility for our existence as part of a whole and being unafraid to shirk the status quo, I wholeheartedly believe we can design a future that will be endorsed by future generations and the core of our being.