Deborah Chu

Ask a Vegware expert: biodegradable vs compostable

8 min Read
Disposable coffee cup with woman in the background.

As the world wakes up to the environmental harm of single-use plastics, many places are switching to more eco-friendly materials. Your local cafe is now handing out flat whites in compostable cups; your favourite takeaway is using biodegradable packaging. Brilliant all around. 

But what’s the difference between biodegradable vs compostable packaging? And most importantly -- which bin do we put them in once we’re done? 

Trust me, I’ve been there. Which is why I'm thrilled to have Annalise Matthews, a Waste Management Consultant with Vegware, on our blog to answer all our burning questions and spread the good word on compost.  

Quick jump to answer by clicking on a question below:

What does biodegradable mean?

A biodegradable item is made out of organic carbon, and so will eventually break down, but under no specific time frame. ‘People might think it’ll break down quickly, but we use the example of a log cabin [to make our point],’ says Annalise. ‘That log cabin is made from wood and will biodegrade, but it can stand for decades or centuries before it does.’

'To make this term even more confusing, "biodegradable" is often mistakenly used to describe oxo-degradable plastics. For example, these dog poop bags were labelled as biodegradable when actually they were made from conventional plastic with an additive to make it break into flakes. Oxo-degradable plastics are now banned across the EU for causing pollution.'

What does compostable mean?

A compostable item can break down within a specific time frame, given the right conditions of moisture, naturally-occurring microbes, and the heat they produce. Under the European standard for compostability (EN 13432), the item must break down in under 12 weeks to be certified as compostable.

‘The term "compostable" refers to industrial composting, just like nobody expects the recycling process for glass or plastic to be carried out at home. Anything you can compost in your own garden, like our food waste liners for example, should be marked as home compostable,’ Annalise says.

How do I dispose of a biodegradable item at home?

The best place would be in with your general waste.

Do not throw it in with your recycling, stresses Annalise. ‘Oxo-degradable plastics are not welcome in plastics recycling, and it’s best to avoid risking any contamination of recyclable items like cans, glass or conventional plastic bottles.’

How do I dispose of a compostable item at home?

This is where it gets tricky. ‘Not all homes have the offering of a compostable waste stream going to an industrial composting facility. So we would recommend, if you’re at home and it’s one item, putting it in your general waste bin,’ says Annalise. 'If you have a box full of used Vegware, maybe after a family party or small wedding, RecycleBox by First Mile is a UK-wide courier service which takes it to suitable composting.'

‘There are some certified home compostable items, such as Vegware’s food waste caddy liners, which can go into your compost bin. But unless your council has a dedicated collection for compostable products -- of which there are far and few in between in the UK, unfortunately -- we’d recommend putting it in your general waste stream.’ This is to avoid contaminating your mixed recycling or food waste!

Can I put compostable items in my council’s food waste bin?

No, you can’t. The majority of household food waste collections are treated by anaerobic digestion. This process captures the methane from the rotting food waste and sells it back to the grid as a renewable fuel, while any leftover liquid fraction is sold to farmers as a fertiliser to maintain and improve the health of our soils. Very, very cool.

Unfortunately, however, anaerobic digestion is not suitable for any packaging. ‘That process only wants pure food waste,’ says Annalise. ‘So all packaging is stripped off at the front end, and then sent to incineration or landfill. Some areas are trialling on-street compostables bins, like these ones set up by Cambridge BID, in partnership with CountryStyle Recycling who collects used Vegware packaging.

What can I do to get my council to set up a compostable waste stream?

First and foremost: get clued up on how your council currently handles their waste. ‘It’s confusing for households because every council has a different recycling set-up,’ says Annalise. How they do things in Aberdeen will be different to Bristol, so it’s best to go straight to the source (i.e. your council website) and see which items you can put in your bins.

Next, it’s time to make some noise (or send an enthusiastic email) to your local council and MP about your love of all things compostable. ‘Local authorities have the power to change where and how they’re handling waste, but ultimately it’s down to where government subsidies end up,’ says Annalise. ‘At the moment, the reason anaerobic digestion is so popular for food waste is because government subsidies make it cheaper for waste collectors to send it to those types of facilities.’

Click to download a templated email to send to your: You can find out who and where to send the email to at Write To Them.

If I’m out and about with a compostable item, what’s the best way to dispose of it?

If you’re in a hurry, your best bet is to put it in the general waste bin. But if you have time, it’s worth checking with the place that you got it from to see if there are better options. For example, larger venues might have an on-site compost set-up that can handle compostable packaging; the cafe you got your flat white from might work with a waste collector that takes compostable packaging, or offer a bring-back service. Maybe they’ll even give you a few extra stamps on that loyalty card…

How can my business help people dispose of their compostable packaging correctly?

The best thing to do is connect with a waste collector that can send your compostables  to a composting facility. Vegware can advise businesses via this ‘keen to compost’ form.

‘You need to make sure your waste collector can actually handle that waste appropriately, because not all waste collectors can,’ says Annalise. ‘Many will be collecting that food waste for an anaerobic digestion stream, which can’t, at the moment, handle compostable packaging.'

'If this is the case, your compostables will simply be separated out and sent to incineration. Vegware works with a network of composting facilities and waste collectors around the UK and beyond to help clients access suitable composting, and set up the right bins.'

Is there any point in buying compostable packaging if you don’t have the right waste collector?

Yes, absolutely! Let us count the ways…
  • Compostable packaging is made from plant-based materials and renewable resources -- unlike, say, fossil fuels, which plastic is derived from.
  • If you’re a business that needs compost (i.e. a stately home, or a college or university that teaches courses on agriculture or horticulture), an on-site composting set-up that takes compostable packaging can help you save money. ‘If they’re using Vegware on-site and they’re already producing food waste from their restaurant and canteen, an on-site composting unit can let them process that waste themselves and have compost pre-made,’ says Annalise.
  • According to a study by one of Vegware's key materials suppliers, plant-based PLA gives off no volatile gases, yet still produces more energy than wood, newspaper or food waste.

How does compost impact soil health?

While not directly linked to compostable packaging, access to cheaper compost will be crucial to improving the health of our soils, which have been degraded over decades of intensive farming practices. ‘Soil health across the world and particular parts of the UK is awful. We’re going to be having significant issues in the next 20 to 30 years, where soils in the UK, America and other parts of the world will not be farmable,’ says Annalise.

Giving farmers access to good, cheap compost could be a game-changer. Many opt to use a liquid fertilizer, which is a less expensive option, but Annalise points out that ploughing compost back into the fields can significantly improve soil health, alongside many other environmental benefits. ‘Compost not only improves soil health and helps lock carbon into the soil so it’s not being released into the atmosphere, but it can also reduce flood risk. There are so many benefits of compost which I don’t think people are fully aware of.’

What does the future of composting look like?

Some places are already living in the future. ‘Italy has fantastic infrastructure for compostable packaging,’ says Annalise. ‘Pretty much every food waste bin in Italy, you can put your compostable packing into.’ That’s not the case in the UK -- yet -- but Italy is a great example of how some solutions aren’t reliant on ground-breaking new innovations: they’re already in place, and achievable now.

But speaking of new technologies, there’s definitely some of that on the horizon too. ‘We’ve seen experimentations with autoclaves at the front of anaerobic digestion plants, and these machines put feedstock -- like compostable packing, which is organic -- through really high temperature, high pressure systems. This means that the packaging can be handled through anaerobic digestion plants, where they couldn’t before,’ says Annalise.

‘We’re also seeing dry anaerobic digestion, which is being used in Europe and starting in the UK. This dry anaerobic digestion can accept different types of feedstock, including compostable packaging. This technology is now emerging in the UK, meaning there will be more facilities that can handle compostables, which ideally would make it more accessible for people to send their waste to the correct facilities.’


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