The Truth About Compostable and Plastic Biodegradables

Experts say that good things about molded pulp containers, paper cups, and paperboard boxes if they don’t wind up in an actual composting site, they biodegrade wherever we throw them within 75 to 120 days, but plastic Styrofoam, if not recycled, will take 50 years to biodegrade.

What is Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging

The road to fixing climate change and environmental issues facing the planet must be paved with good intentions. Good citizens determined to use only compostable packaging is one segment. And manufacturers and advocates for plastic biodegradable materials are also looking for solutions which sound like zero-sum-game. Eco-eateries haven’t just forsworn shipped-in produce and factory-farmed meat is packaged in compostable materials is necessary but is what they believe, and United Nations assessment report on both materials shows that Compostable Packaging is the best solution.

They’re also abandoning regular plastic and biodegradable plastics, instead of packing to-go foodservice orders in innovative compostable containers that preserve food temperature and extend shelf life. With all the economic opportunities and environmental benefits of molded pulp foodservice containers, paper cups, and paperboard boxes there is research that shows the destruction of the planet by plastic is here to stay.

As Nick Paton Walsh, Ingrid Formanek, Jackson Loo, and Mark Phillips described in their documentary “Plastic Island – How our throwaway culture is turning paradise into graveyard

Nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists today. More than five trillion pieces of plastic are already in the oceans, and by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish, by weight, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Some 8 million tons of plastic trash leak into the ocean annually, and it’s getting worse every year. Americans are said to use 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour, China and India combined have even bigger numbers when it comes to plastic pollution.

So, what are biodegradable plastics good for? In principle, plastics are valued for their ability to make strong, durable products (for example in food storage, transport, building, and construction).  Biodegradability should, therefore, be regarded as additional functionality when the application demands a cheap way to dispose of the item after it has fulfilled its job (e.g. for packaging, protect food and keep it fresh). Examples of useful biodegradable products are:

1. Food packaging – that can be composted together with its contents when the product is past its sell-by date or spoiled
2.Agriculture – plastic sheeting that can be plowed-into biodegradable mulch and seed films
3.Medical – absorbable sutures; micro-devices containing medicine, which break down inside the body

Which is Better?

With all the resistance to change, something amazing is happening around the country: cities and districts are starting to ban Styrofoam and plastic bags.

Widespread adoption of products labeled “biodegradable” will not significantly decrease the volume of plastic entering the ocean or the physical and chemical risks that plastics pose to the marine environment, accord to a United Nations.

Now we all know biodegradable plastics, often found in bottles and plastic bags, may not be the solution to ocean pollution as once marketed, according to a United Nations report published Monday, because they don’t break down well in marine environment.

Quite simply, there isn’t a ‘better’ option. It depends largely on where you live and the recycling facilities you have access to. On one hand, we have biodegradable packaging that breaks down quickly and isn’t intended to improve the soil. On the other, we have compostable packaging that needs to be composted to break down and benefit the soil. Neither will hang around for hundreds of years in a landfill or in the sea, which is already a good start!

Finally, it’s important not to get ‘greenwashed’ by recycling claims. Recyclable, biodegradable and compostable packaging all sound like more environmentally friendly options. But not all claims apply to all situations, and sometimes it takes a bit of research to figure out. Don’t be afraid to ask about the packaging of your favorite products – perhaps some of it could be avoided altogether.

If biodegradable plastic containers cannot do the job, what is plan B? For years, renewable plants such as bamboo-pulp, sugarcane-pulp, wood-pulp molded into packaging materials have proven without question to be hundred percent compostable and environmentally economic.

Water is at a premium these days and composted soil reduces the amount of water consumed by plants to recycle biodegradable plastic materials. Composting can also reduce plant diseases and pests, lessening the need for expensive chemicals and fertilizers. A higher yield of agricultural crops grown in composted soil equates to more products that can be sold, and the (EPA) states that composting provides a less expensive alternative to conventional ways to remediate (clean) contaminated soil, putting money back into the tax payer’s wallets.

What’s the Difference?

Compostable packaging breaks down in a home compost pile or a commercial composting facility. It forms decayed organic substances that can be used as a fertilizer, benefiting the soil. This generally takes a few months, but how long the process takes and what conditions are required can differ. There are strict criteria used to certify packaging as compostable in certain parts of the world.

The biodegradable packaging also breaks down over time. It will completely return to nature in a comparatively short amount of time. It doesn’t need special conditions, but it also doesn’t necessarily benefit the soil.
It’s how you plan to dispose of it, that makes the real difference. Biodegradable packaging makes no claim to benefit the soil. So, there’s no reason to go to great lengths to do more than recycle as you usually do. Compostable packaging requires composting conditions for it to impart benefits to the soil. If you don’t compost, the benefits of compostable packaging are largely lost.

Compostable packaging products offer a promising alternative to petroleum-based plastics. While petroleum-based products use oil in their manufacturing and take up space in landfills, compostable paper, and molded pulp materials can be easily be disposed of in a way that is less damaging to the environment.

The major obstacles to replacing petroleum-based plastics with compostable packaging materials are high costs and low yields associated with existing methods of saying plastic bottle production. With more research into plant-based manufacturing systems, these obstacles are being overcome. Finally, the last obstacle to surmount is the proper disposal of compostable packaging materials. For compostable packaging materials to be effectively disposed of, the current waste management infrastructure must change, or methods with less economic and environmental costs must be developed.

According to U.S. National Park Service; Mote Marine Lab, Sarasota, FL (decomposition times); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program, the approximate time it takes for compostable and conventional non-biodegradables garbage to decompose in the environment is scary and need to be taught in basic elementary schools…


Choosing a packaging container is a constant balance between quality and sustainability according to restaurant owners and fresh produce packing companies. Delivering hot food means ensuring the quality of packing product; clamshell boxes need to do things like keep temperature of food consistent within a specific time interval. Restaurant owners compare molded pulp and Styrofoam, weigh traditional sustainable benefits, cost and environment concern before choosing between biodegradable/compostable products.

Beyond basic disintegration of plant-based packaging through composting, some recycling leaders have turned to a traditional agricultural practice that burns organic matter in order to create a carbon-rich substance called biochar. Once mixed into the soil, biochar can boost plant growth in degraded urban soil by 40 percent, according to a study by NYU professor Natalie Jeremijenko at New York’s Socrates Sculpture Park. 

She turned composting into a community event called a “Biochar Cha.” Locals brought junk mail to be burned at a “biochar barbeque” while unwinding to the mixes of a salsa DJ. She said such “public experiments” can grow into a widespread practice that will help create a cleaner environment at a faster rate than cities’ curbside programs will. 
The fundamental challenge that we face in the next 25 years is to redesign our relationship to natural systems,” she said. “The ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ has to be radically transformed to understand our relationship to natural systems.