Biodegradable packaging or compostable packaging

Posted in: Opinion

Choosing biodegradable or compostable packaging – an eco-friendly solution for a sustainable future

In 2021, the UK generated 2.5 million tons of plastic waste*. Globally, we generate around 141 million tons**.

The e-commerce industry used more than 1.3 million tonnes of plastic packaging in 2021. And that is a figure that’s projected to more than double this decade. Roughly one third of all plastic is used for packaging. Around 85 per cent ends up in landfill.

According to environmental advocacy group, Oceana, Amazon’s plastic waste (as packaging pillows) could circle the globe 800 times. It estimated the retail giant’s plastic packaging waste at 321,596 metric tonnes in 2022, an 18 per cent increase from 2020.

To put that into some perspective, that is a plastic footprint that weighs the same as 80,000 adult killer whales. Shipping billions of parcels in more than 100 countries for more than three decades, Amazon has left an indelible mark.

Amazon has declaimed the report, stating that Oceana may have overestimated by as much as 300%. And, it claims, it has taken steps to minimise both its polluting packaging products, and the amount of packaging it uses.

Amazon encourages its vendors to adhere to Certified Frustration-Free Packaging. This guarantees that your item comes without excess packaging materials, and those materials used are recyclable.

That’s great, but even recycling has its limitations.

If you’re committed to a healthy planet, and the most sustainable packaging solution, biodegradable or compostable packaging might be the answer you’re looking for.

What is it?

The term “biodegradable” is a broad stroke term used to describe any material that will naturally break down: under any conditions, and in an undefined timeframe.

Biodegradable packaging contains materials that can be broken down by microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and algae. The most popular types of biodegradable packaging are cardboard, paper, and bio-based polymers. But by its very definition, the term biodegradable covers anything from a paper bag or cellulose-based food-wrapper, to a wooden box.

Obviously, these packaging items will break down at different speeds. A paper bag will biodegrade within a month. An uncoated cellulose wrapper can biodegrade within two months. A wooden box will last for years, centuries even – a research team in the Czech Republic recently found the oldest wooden structure in the world, made from oak wood that was cut around 7,275 years ago.

There are clearly degrees of biodegradability. So, how do you find a truly biodegradable package, that won’t last longer than we do?

Dead Cert

Look for packaging certified as “compostable”. Packaging that is certified compostable will safely biodegrade in a compost environment, whether domestic or commercial. The certification brings assurance that the package will completely and safely decompose under certain conditions, and within a pre-defined time frame, leaving nutrient-rich soil behind.

Biodegradable packaging, such as paper or cellulose, has a weak molecular structure so it will disintegrate quickly.


Is one of the oldest, and most traditional forms of compostable packaging. It biodegrades rapidly, and can be easily recycled. In the right conditions, paper will biodegrade within days. It isn’t suitable for all packaging products, particularly food items, as it does not offer the same protection or sealing as other packaging materials.


Is highly biodegradable, versatile, and resilient. It remains an expensive source for making bioplastics, and is not yet commercially available in a polymerised form. Hemp biodegrades cleanly, safely, and is a renewable alternative. As a bioplastic, it is actually stronger than plastic, and will biodegrade within three to six months.

Polyactic acid, or PLA plastic

Is widely used for short-life packaging products, like food stuffs, and single use items. Bio-based, PLA can be moulded in the same way as conventional plastic. However, it is not a biodegradable material in just any environment. PLA will only degrade at a high temperature, such as under industrial composting conditions, a process that takes several months.


Is plant-based. It is suitable for short-term packaging, but quickly discolours, and degrades very easily. This makes it unsuitable for food products or items with a shelf-life. Cellulose packaging biodegrades within 1-2 months if uncoated, 2-3 if coated. In water, uncoated cellulose degrades in 10 days, and within 30, if coated.

Seaweed-based materials

Is highly biodegradable, and will degrade in four to six weeks in the soil. Suitable for short-term packaging, seaweed is unstable and therefore unsuitable for food packaging. Similarly, it does not fare well in transport and storage. Naturally occurring, seaweed can grow up to three feet a day and doesn’t require fresh water or fertiliser.

Seaweed has been removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for at millions of years. Recent studies suggest that wild seaweed sequesters 173 million metric tons annually. The average square kilometer of seaweed can sequester more than a thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide. Seaweed is sustainable and sustaining. But seaweed packaging remains niche, and that makes it more expensive than its traditional plastic counterparts.

While the packaging industry strives to make packaging as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible, the end user has a real part to play too. As explained, not all packaging products will promptly biodegrade outside of optimum conditions. From food waste bins and domestic composting to commercial and industrial composting: if you’re unsure, contact your local council for advice.

Choose biodegradable or compostable packaging: the eco-friendly solution for a sustainable future. Contact us today, on 01625 870000.

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