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What’s the difference between recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging?

By 24/02/2020No Comments

What Do Recyclable, Compostable & Biodegradable Really Mean?

Biodegradable, recyclable and compostable are all buzzwords when it comes to humankind acting environmentally conscious. This more than ever, due to changing attitudes. This blog will discuss each of the packaging materials and the overarching issue of sustainable packaging.

So why is recyclable, compostable & biodegradable packaging so important?

Sustainable packaging materials are a key trend for 2020 (our last blogs chats all about this!). Therefore, understanding how packaging can become more environmentally friendly is crucial – now more than ever.

We are all aware of the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle”. It is repeated to us year in year out, and most of us follow the advice. However, it wasn’t until a recent episode of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, which showed distressing images of marine life struggling to deal with plastic contamination that people have become aware of the issue.

A recent statistic from Waitrose & Partners was demonstrating that 88% of people who watched the episode of have since changed how they use plastic.

Furthermore, the company also recorded a remarkable 800% increase in the number of plastic-related enquiries via their Twitter account within six months of the end of the series, indicating that customers are becoming more concerned for the environment.

young woman picking up plastic at rocky beach GXZQMJW

Therefore, with this in mind, more retailers and manufacturers are looking for environmental ways. Consequently, terms such as recyclable, compostable and biodegradable are commonly used in reference to packaging. But, although these three words are frequently used together, often interchangeably, they refer to different processes. So, let us distinguish between them.

But, even with retailer doing their best to produce packaging, which is more sustainable, the consumer can still get muddled. From the aluminium, we use to pack sandwiches for lunch and the yoghurt containers from breakfast to the bits and bobs of vegetable trimmings. So, here’s a breakdown of some of the most common terms you’ll see, what they mean, and how retailers can produce packaging which meets these criteria.

toxic plastic waste floating underwater in the XBDUPQM


From our list of standard terms, recycling is probably the most understood. Primarily recycling refers to the process of converting old or used materials into something brand new. Consequently, this process keeps the product away from landfill for longer. However, there are some limits — for example, the number of times a material can be recycled and what material is recyclable. Standard plastics and paper can be recycled only a few times before they become unusable, whereas others such as glass, metal and aluminium can be recycled endlessly!

paper waste separation PXEWDX8
sorting on waste recycling plant 9RGTU2E

However, when it comes to recycling plastics, this is where it can become tricky. There are, in fact, seven types of plastic within the packaging industry. Some of which can be commonly recycled, others cannot.

In recent studies, two-thirds of British homeowner recycle as much as they can. But, a staggering 37% admit that they don’t always know if a product’s packaging is recyclable. Therefore, to prevent such confusion, retailers and manufacturers need to ensure packaging is clear on whether it can be
recycled or not.

But, in addition to making sure packaging is labelled more clearly, switching to reusable packaging solutions is another way to recycle and keep products in circulation for longer. An example of a material which can be used more than once is durable boxes and mailing bags. If an online retailer offers customers a reusable box or mailing, they can use either one for exchanges or returns. Ultimately this saves the excess material being used unnecessarily.


When something is biodegradable, this means it can be broken down naturally by the earth. Remember back to our school days when we learnt about microorganisms, bacteria and fungi – well these are relevant to biodegradable packaging!

Overall, a lot of products will break down naturally (therefore they are technically biodegradable). But some may take many years to do so. Even natural products such as banana skin can take two years to biodegrade when thrown away – madness right!

Likewise, packaging products such as plastic bags require specific conditions to break down. But, when left to decompose in a landfill, they may produce harmful greenhouse gases and turn into smaller pieces of plastic. Therefore, taking some time to dissolve while harming the environment.

That is why biodegradable plastics have become increasingly popular. Due to their speedier decomposing process compared to their plastic counterparts, biodegradable packaging is much more environmentally friendly alternative.

cardboard gardening pot containers for soil top VFRDZEK


Finally, compostable. Compostable products are made entirely from natural materials such as starch and decompose fully into compost. Without producing toxic residue as they break down, compostable packaging is a sustainable option. But it is essential to know that to be classified as compostable; products must meet specific requirements defined in The European Standard EN 13432.

Currently, at the moment, compostable and biodegradable packaging is not recyclable and can I fact contaminate the recycling process. However, due to the demand for an environmentally friendly method for waste, technology advancements suggest compostable packaging will able to be recycled in the future.

woman composting organic kitchen waste PGUM28D

The NEW alternative – Bioplastics

Not many people know about this new and upcoming packaging alternative. Made from marine or plant-based materials (such as corn and sugarcane) instead of petroleum, bioplastics are considered very environmentally friendly.

As a result of their production, bioplastics require the usage of fewer fossil fuels and generates fewer greenhouse gases, their impact on the environment is minimal. Some bioplastics are even made from agricultural products such as potato peelings which promote recycling!

However, despite what their name suggests, not all bioplastics are biodegradable. For example, a polylactic acid (PLA) bioplastic is biodegradable. Whereas a polyethene terephthalate (PET) bioplastic is not but is, in fact, recyclable. Confusing right? But regards of their confusion, bioplastics are certainly better for the environment than standard plastics.

Overall, the debate continues whether recyclable, compostable, bioplastics or biodegradable packaging is best for the environment. Consequently, there is no one set answer. All of the materials discussed offer a solution to the world’s packaging problem. It is manufacturers and retailer’s responsibility to ensure we are taking a step forward in considering more sustainable alternatives to standard packaging.

At Eastpac, we offer a range of environmentally friendly, sustainable packaging solutions to help you meet your corporate responsibility and environmental goals in 2020. So why not contact us today to discuss your requirements?