An image of a consumer eating a takeaway salad in compostable food packaging in an article about whether compostable food packaging is environmentally friendly

Is compostable food packaging environmentally friendly?

As consumers become more aware of the implications of plastic food packaging, several eco-friendly alternatives have become available and widely used across the food and beverage industry. One of the more popular options is compostable packaging, as it is made from organic matter which disintegrates naturally – under specific conditions. 

Compostable food packaging can help restaurants reduce their environmental impact and align more closely with a circular economy. In turn, this opens the brand’s appeal to a wider target market, specifically those who show concern for the effects of plastic on the environment. 

Recent studies suggest the compostable food packaging market will attain a value of $29.3 billion by 2033. This is aided, in part, by larger companies realising the popularity of eco-friendly packaging with consumers and making the switch. For instance, Canadian KFC branches are aiming to have all packaging home-compostable by 2025.

Understanding compostable food packaging materials

In essence, compostable food packaging is made from environmentally friendly or renewable materials that can be broken down in a manner that benefits the surrounding environment. That said, compostable packaging requires specific conditions in order for microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi to thrive so they can break down the materials. 

These materials are processed into decayed organic material called compost, which can be used to fertilise the soil. The nuanced role of compostable packaging, standards, and types of compostable packaging coalesce to achieve more sustainable food packaging. Notably, compostable packaging must be able to break down completely within 12 weeks. 

Compostable food packaging materials include:

A recent survey found UK consumers tend to prefer compostable materials over recycled plastics, with 73% willing to pay more for a premium compostable alternative to recycled plastics. 

An image of compostable food packaging, compostable takeout containers, compostable fast food boxes, compostable takeaway soup containers, compostable burger boxes, in an article about whether compostable food packaging is environmentally friendly

The difference between biodegradable & compostable packaging

On most packaging, the terms “compostable” and “biodegradable” are often used interchangeably. However, it is important to note that while all compostable products are biodegradable, some biodegradable products may not be compostable. 

Compostable packaging adds value to the ecosystem by decomposing into nutrient-rich compost, leaving no harmful residues behind. In order to be compostable, the packaging materials must meet specific standards set by the relevant government bodies. For example, the composting standard in the US state the product must biodegrade within 90 days and leave no harmful residue. Seed germination trials are also set to ensure no harm will come to plant life once the packaging is decomposed. 

Biodegradable packaging breaks down in the same way as compostable packaging – through microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria, which is why all compostable materials are also biodegradable. That said, unlike compostable materials, biodegradable materials have fewer regulations regarding decomposition times and toxin tests. Therefore, any packaging could be labelled as biodegradable, as most of the materials break down over time, despite taking hundreds of years. 

It is this difference that causes confusion among consumers, which may lead them to think biodegradable packaging can be composted at home. However, this could contaminate the compost and cause toxins to pollute the ecosystem. With less than 20% of waste being recycled each year and landfills continuing to increase in size, compostable food packaging offers a more environmentally friendly, long-term alternative to biodegradable options. 

An image of restaurant worker or fast food employee packing takeout food into compostable food packaging, compostable food containers, compostable takeout boxes, in an article about whether compostable food packaging is environmentally friendly

Is compostable food packaging environmentally friendly?

Notably, compostable food packaging has a smaller carbon footprint than traditional plastics. Furthermore, the materials used produce significantly fewer greenhouse gases over their lifetime than traditional fossil-fuel-produced plastics. That said, at the final stage of the packaging life, restaurant owners have to rely on consumers to have compostable bins at their residences. Or, consumers must be able to take compostable waste to a facility in order to be broken down. 

Consumers have made it clear they have a strong preference for environmentally friendly packaging, with 86% of the younger generation stating they are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging. More so, over half of consumers are less likely to buy products placed in harmful or non-recyclable packaging. However, for consumers to make the most of compostable packaging, they have to have the correct disposable methods in place. Research shows that while compostable packaging has the most environmental appeal to the public, it has low rates of correct disposal.  

Several studies have revealed the public shows confusion over the difference between the terms compostable and biodegradable. This increases the likelihood of incorrect disposal of compostable items, leading to further environmental decline. Notably, a 2022 study conducted in the UK showed owning a compost bin is unlikely to guarantee that compostable packaging will break down correctly. During the study, around 70% of plastics that were certified as home-compostable failed to break down and remained as fragments for up to 12 months. 

Interestingly, this reveals that some compostable packaging materials are of a higher standard than others, and are able to break down within the preferable 90-day limit. However, another recent study supports the claim that compostable plastics are unsuitable for at-home compost and should be taken to an industrial compost facility in order to be broken down in a safe and correct manner.  

It is important to note that the University College London also launched a study into the benefits of home composting. The 2022 study found the distinction between packaging that is suitable for at-home composting and packaging that should be taken to an industrial composting site was often too vague, and therefore, lost on the majority of consumers. 

This being the case, other compostable materials, such as cornstarch or recycled paper, may be more beneficial for use as food packaging until improvements are made on the compostable plastics. It would make it easier for consumers to compost at home. Alternatively, restaurants can choose to customise their compostable food packaging to inform consumers of whether it can be broken down at home or whether it should be sent to a regulated composting facility. This could lead to better sustainability practices in the future and help further improve environmental issues while raising awareness among your consumers.