Breaking Down Compostable packaging

Over the last several years, there seems to be significant increase in compostable plastic packaging. Although it might seem like a no-brainer to make our packaging compostable whenever possible, this increase in popularity wasn’t a smooth road to the prevalence we are starting to see today. In fact, one of the first widely known compostable plastic packages went on to also be one of the most loathed packages.

Perhaps you remember the noisy chip bag scandal from a few years back? In 2009 Pepsi-co launched a bio-based sun chip bag made from PLA (polylactic acid). The best part about this bag was that it was also compostable and would biodegrade just about anywhere. This was Pepsi’s effort to address both littering and offer a more environmentally friendly alternative.

For this, I commend Pepsi for their efforts because not every brand owner is willing to invest in trying to make their products more environmentally friendly. However, a lot of people didn’t feel the same way as me. Consumers quickly became annoyed with the noise that these bags made. All chip bags crinkle a bit, but customers couldn’t handle noise coming from this bag. It was so bad that sun chips ended up being the butt end of jokes for months and even lost market share.

SunChips image by theimpulsivebuy via Flickr.

There are some valuable lessons to be learned from this whole fiasco. For starters, I think it shows how concerned with convenience we have all become. I mean, come on; we couldn’t be inconvenienced with a compostable chip bag because it was too noisy? Seems a bit silly. Despite most peoples tendency to self describe as environmentally conscience, they aren’t even willing to make minor sacrifices. Eventually Pepsi was able to redesign the material and bag to not be quite as noisy and the whole ordeal was quickly forgotten.

Pepsi’s Sun Chips bag was just one example of many compostable packaging products on the market today. Nonetheless, there are several challenges with consumers understanding of these products. For me, a lot of these issues start at the labels.

There are various labels that companies have started using. Most of them are tied back to the regulatory agency testing and approving the compost-ability of these products. While I am all for having an authority body determining what is compostable and what isn’t, having multiple authority agencies is contributing to the confusion. I think our government officials would be able to make a much larger impact if they would focus on setting a single labeling system that informs consumers rather than just broad plastic bans.

Current labels often just say they are “compostable”, but they don’t differentiate on if they are industrial or backyard compostable. There is a very big difference between the two.

As the name implies, backyard compostable products can be broken down in a simple back yard compost set-up or even a small local composting facility that operates just on a larger scale. Industrial composting facilities are bit more of an exact science. They not only operate on huge scales, but also tightly control the size of the inputs by grinding and control the heat, water, and air that the compost is exposed to. This allows industrial facilities to operate at higher temperatures and breakdown items that might not breakdown at home. Regardless of which type is used, the end result is valuable nutrient rich soil.

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

The differences between industrial and Backyard composting are exactly why it’s so important for consumers to understand the labels. Industrial compostable items won’t breakdown in the backyard and neither material will breakdown once in a landfill so it is critical that items end up at the right place in order to be effective.

Unfortunately, we all don’t have access to industrial compost facilities near us. There are ways to find local composting such as this site. And lucky for us, the number of facilities is increasing as people begin to see the value. Keep an eye out for these composting logos. I’d love to hear if you think the labels communicate effectively.

Author: Miles Quinn

Miles has been in the packaging field for over 5 years after studying packaging science at Clemson University. He moved to Reno, NV after graduating and has fallen in love with the area. He has a passion for environmentalism and is hoping to make an impact both locally and on a large scale

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