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Compostable, recyclable and co.

The most important terms around sustainable packaging

  • Sustainable packaging is increasingly in demand, but different product names can cause confusion among consumers.
  • Biodegradable, compostable, recyclable and bio-based products contribute in different ways to more sustainability in the packaging industry.
  • Ecological demands and the protection of the packaged products mean a difficult balancing act in the development of compostable packaging.


The topics of nature conservation, environmental protection and sustainability are becoming increasingly important in all areas of life. In the packaging industry, we are of course aware of the responsibility this entails. Sustainable and recyclable materials are therefore an important factor in our industry.


This is partly because packaging also accounts for a large share of waste in private households. According to the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), there was an average of 68 kilograms of packaging waste per capita in 2018, with a total household waste volume of 157 kilograms per inhabitant.

Despite the high recovery rates (75 per cent through recycling according to Destatis), interest in alternatives to conventional plastics as a basis for packaging is growing in the industrial sector. These include compostable materials made from natural substances or bioplastics.

 

So-called "bioplastics", however, pose a particular difficulty for consumers, because the various terms are often used synonymously. However, biodegradable, compostable, bio-based and recyclable do not mean the same thing, but rather very different ways of using resources sparingly.

That's why we explain the most important terms around sustainable packaging and show where the differences lie.
 

Compostable - what does that actually mean?

Garden owners in particular should be familiar with the term "compostable". After all, garden compost is incredibly practical. From branches to lawn clippings to kitchen waste, almost all biodegradable materials can be turned into home-made fertiliser under the right conditions and with enough time.

This is also how the term "compostable" is defined. The great advantage is that waste can be avoided by returning it to the material cycle. For this reason, the concept is also interesting for packaging manufacturers. Instead of creating packaging waste that cannot be recycled, compostable materials allow for an environmentally friendly alternative. Nevertheless, caution is advised, because there are limits when it comes to compost.

This applies to organic materials as well as to packaging that is declared as "compostable". While labels and folding boxes made of paper decompose without any problems, this is not necessarily the case for flexible packaging, cups, blister packs and other containers.

They do not belong on the garden compost, but in case of doubt in the yellow bag. Under no circumstances should organic plastics be disposed of in nature. Because even if packaging materials are compostable, the controlled conditions in the wild are lacking (see infobox "Certificates for compostable materials") to set the necessary decomposition processes in motion.

According to the German Industrial Standard DIN, there are two different certificates for compostable materials:

Compostable in an industrial composting plant means decomposition over twelve weeks at around 60 degrees. 90 per cent of the leftovers must fit through a two-millimetre sieve.

Composting on the garden compost requires around 30 degrees for decomposition over the period of one year.

Quelle: EN 13432 Certified Bioplastics. Performance in Industrial Composting, European Bioplastics e.V.

Recyclable, compostable, biodegradable - the big differences

Even though compostable materials remain in the material cycle, they are not recyclable. Biobased materials do not necessarily have to be biodegradable. For a better understanding, the terms need to be distinguished from each other.
 

  • Biodegradable: The definition for this product designation also comes from the German Institute for Standardisation. If microorganisms such as bacteria are able to decompose a substance, it is considered biodegradable. The decisive factor here is not the raw materials but the chemical structure of the plastic in question. .

    This applies to organic waste bags, for example, but also to packaging films made of PLA or other biodegradable materials, which are used to package fresh foods such as fruit and vegetables, among other things.

  • Bio-based: Bio-based plastics are made from renewable raw materials and do not require petroleum. However, this does not necessarily make them biodegradable. Depending on the composites used, this property does not apply. This is the case, for example, with bio-based PET bottles, which cannot be biologically decomposed.
Whether a product is biodegradable or compostable depends on the time it takes to decompose. Compostable materials degrade in a maximum of six months. With biodegradable materials, on the other hand, this process can take many years.

The recycling associations Plastics Recycling Europe and the American Association of Plastic Recyclers clarified what is meant by "recyclable" only a few years ago:
 

  • The plastic used must be collected for recycling, have a market value and be supported under a legally prescribed programme.
  • The use for recycling processes stipulates that a product must pass through previously defined sorting and aggregation streams. In this process, different materials are separated from each other and aggregated respectively.
  • The plastic must be processable and recoverable in commercial recycling processes.
  • At the end of the recycling process, a raw material must be created from which new products can be manufactured.
  • What all these terms have in common at the end is the effort to use resources more sustainably. In this regard, as a member of the packaging industry, we also bear an ecological responsibility and have made this a fixed part of our corporate philosophy.
   
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We already pay attention to innovative and resource-saving methods and materials during production. To this end, the recyclability of our paper and cardboard products is a key aspect, just as it is for the various tubes and labels made of plastic.

In order to be able to make an even greater contribution to sustainability in the future, we ourselves are researching various solutions for primary and secondary packaging. We are fully aware of the importance of innovative and sustainable disposal options. Our long-term goal is therefore also to give compostable packaging more room in our manufacturing processes.

This is all the more important because additional factors can influence compostability or possible recycling. Printing inks, a film lamination or hot foil finishes, for example, are among the variables that we as manufacturers have to take into account when developing ecological packaging concepts.
 

Market potential sustainability: On the triumphant march with compostable materials

The fact that compostable packaging is on the rise and represents a huge growth market brings with it a whole range of positive effects in terms of environmental protection and sustainability:
 

  • The amount of plastic packaging can thus be significantly reduced. Conversely, this means that the mountains of plastic waste, which have become a serious environmental problem, can also be reduced.
  • Bio-based, biodegradable plastics have a significantly better CO2 balance compared to conventional plastics. This is because no petroleum is needed for their production.


Apart from that, sustainability is an economic factor. It plays a central role in purchasing decisions for a growing number of people, and not only for food.

For the packaging industry, changing purchasing behaviour is both a driving factor and a challenge. Those who want to satisfy the needs of customers with their products in the future must adapt to the changed conditions.

 

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As the market volume of the packaging industry continues to grow, the topic of waste and its disposal remains an ever-present issue. As a company, we are also in demand to find innovative and attractive solutions.

Particularly in the area of food packaging, tightrope walks have to be performed: On the one hand, food protection must be guaranteed at all times. On the other hand, as little packaging waste as possible should be produced.

An ecologically sensible solution must therefore also take into account that in the end it is not the food itself that ends up in the rubbish. In many cases, the question therefore arises as to whether compostable or conventional packaging is more suitable. In addition, it is important to create alternatives to compostable packaging, which mainly comes from the USA or China. The long transport routes alone ensure that the ecological advantage of a compostable product ultimately evaporates.

Therefore, it is our concern to meet the customers' demand for more sustainability as comprehensively as possible and to be able to offer ecological products of the usual high quality and attractiveness.

These articles might also interest you:


Compostability: What are the laws and standards?

Packaging waste is a significant problem, especially in the quantities generated today. In Germany alone, the total amount in 2017 was 18.7 million tonnes, according to the Federal Environment Agency.
   

The comparison: compostable or conventional packaging?

The share of biodegradable or even compostable packaging - measured against the total amount of packaging waste - is still low.
 
   

Natural cardboard for folding boxes that inspire

Natural cardboard has gained considerable popularity as a packaging material in recent years. Packaging often consists of the well-known plain brown cardboard.
 
   
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