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Compostable packaging - all the advantages and disadvantages

Sustainability plays a large and important role in all areas of the economy - including the packaging industry. One way of making packaging products more ecological, if necessary, is compostable packaging. But is it really a useful alternative to packaging made from conventional or recyclable materials? We take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages.

All bioplastics - right?

To understand what is meant by compostable packaging, one should also take a look at other common ecological declarations with which packaging is labeled. All too often, all categories are lumped together under the term "bioplastic," which regularly leads to misunderstandings.

Bio-based plastics

Bio-based plastics are made from renewable raw materials. Corn, starch or cellulose, for example, are used. The proportion of natural materials can be 100 percent, but significantly lower compositions are also possible. A bio-based plastic does not necessarily have to be biodegradable. Bio-PET, for example, is made from Brazilian sugar cane but it cannot be biodegraded.

Maisfeld aus dem kompostierbarer Kunstoff hergestellt werden kann
Nicht biologisch abbaubare Tüte im Meer

Biodegradable plastics

Biodegradable refers to the disposal of the materials. A plastic may be called biodegradable if it decomposes into water and carbon dioxide within an unspecified time due to biological processes. However, this does not include statements about the production of the plastic: This does not have to be based on biological materials.

Compostable packaging

Now that the terms bio-based and biodegradable have been clarified, the definition of compostable packaging becomes understandable: this refers to materials that decompose within a specified period of time through clearly defined processes and under specific conditions. Accordingly, it is a special form of biodegradable plastic. Mostly compostable packaging is made of polylactic acid (PLA).

Plastikflasche zerdrückt nicht kompostierbar

All about compost

When most people hear the word "compost" they think of a somewhat dingy, somewhat smelly pile in the farthest corner of the garden, with flies circling around it. But in fact, that represents only a relatively small percentage of composting systems, the so-called home composts. Industrial composting facilities account for the larger share.
Gemüse in Heimkompost

WWhat does compost actually mean?

During composting, biodegradable materials are increasingly decomposed by microorganisms. The humus material that is crucial in this process is excellent as a fertilizer, as it contains many nutrients, and so contributes to the growth of other plants. In a compost - whether in the garden or industrial - one tries to create the most perfect conditions possible for the microorganisms to do their work.

Home composting

Open and closed systems can be used for home composting. In closed systems, very good conditions can be created for the microorganisms, which is why the organic waste also decomposes faster here. To achieve this, regular turning of the contents must ensure that harmful microorganisms - such as mold - have no chance. This is not necessary with open systems, as sufficient ventilation is always provided. On the other hand, the decomposition of the waste is much slower and depends on the weather conditions. All organic waste such as fruit and vegetable leftovers, garden waste or tea bags and coffee filters may be placed on a home compost. Compostable packaging is explicitly not included! However, this point will be discussed in more detail.

Heimkompost im Garten
Industrielle Anlage zur Kompostierung von Verpackungen

Industrial composting

Industrial composting involves creating the ideal conditions for compostable material to decompose as quickly as possible. This includes controlling the oxygen content and the temperature, which averages 50 degrees or higher. So, unlike home composting, much higher temperatures are achieved, which also affects composting.

The requirements for compostable packaging

In order for packaging to receive the "compostable packaging" label, it must meet several characteristics:

  • After 90 days, 90 percent of the packaging must have rotted in an industrial composting facility.
  • The composting of the packaging must not have a negative impact on the rest of the composting process. This would be the case, for example, if pollutants were released as a result.
  • The composting process must not release any toxic substances.
Plastikflasche in Hausmüll
EN 13432 standard or NF T51-800:2015?

If all of these above conditions are met, a package is certified as compostable packaging in accordance with the European standard EN 13432 and is suitable for industrial composting. However, this does not mean that it may also be used in home composting. Many compostable packages decompose only at the high temperatures of industrial composting. Suitability for home compost is additionally certified by the NF T51-800:2015 standard. Only if there is a corresponding certificate on the packaging, it may be disposed of in the home compost.

Compostable packaging - the status quo

So at first glance, the principle of compostable packaging looks good; nevertheless, so far it only accounts for a small part of the total volume. So in which areas do we already find compostable packaging? And when do they make sense at all?
Verpackungschips kompostierbar

Compostable packaging selection

Compostable packaging is relatively rarely offered in retail stores, but consumers can choose from a wide range of products online. Some suppliers specialize in sustainable packaging, while others see the products as an additional offer for their customers. Some examples of compostable packaging are shipping bags, packaging chips as filling material for boxes, special bubble wrap, food packaging such as cups, bowls, plates or platters, packaging film, labels and CD, DVD or book packaging.

Does compostable packaging always make sense?

To answer this question, you first have to consider what packaging is actually used for. They should

  • protect products from external influences and so contribute to a longer service life.
  • package products safely and hygienically to eliminate contamination.
  • keep liquids away from the product or shield liquid products from the outside.

Compostable packaging makes sense if it has all these properties without any limitations compared to conventional plastic. Otherwise, the products are sustainable, but still not alternatives - after all, a drinking cup that starts to decompose when it comes into contact with liquids would be extremely nonsensical.

Lebensmittelverpackung als Schutz
Especially for packaging used in direct food contact, the safety of the contents and the consumer is a priority. Otherwise, the packaging has no purpose. If you still don't want to do without sustainable food packaging, we recommend our stand-up pouches made of 100% recyclable mono-plastic, for example.

Compostable packaging - all advantages and disadvantages at a glance

Advantages of compostable packaging

  • Complete decomposition: If packaging is disposed of via industrial compost, only carbon dioxide and water remain after disposal. This means that this packaging is certainly more environmentally friendly than conventional plastic, the remains of which are detectable everywhere.
  • Use of harmless materials: If packaging is certified according to EN 13432, it is guaranteed that no materials were used in the production that are contaminated with harmful substances.

Disadvantages of compostable packaging

  • Difficulties with disposal: There is still no sensible disposal option for compostable packaging. They are not allowed in the brown garbage can because special industrial facilities are needed for rotting. However, they are also frequently sorted out in the yellow garbage can because the total proportion has so far been so low that composting is not economically viable. As a result, the packaging is incinerated together with residual waste.
  • Low output: Unlike home compost, which produces fertilizer, industrial composting facilities usually produce only carbon dioxide and water, as well as a small amount of biomass. This is due on the one hand to the accelerated process, and on the other hand to the materials being composted.
  • Loss of raw materials: At the end of the composting process, no products come out that can be used again for the production of new goods. Therefore, the raw materials are lost after one-time use. You can learn more about this in our article comparing composting and recycling.


Compostable packaging sounds good, but it is only a limited sustainable alternative. According to the current state of affairs, much more efficient and ecological is effective recycling or the use of products that are designed for multiple use. This is also the conclusion of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection, which describes the packaging as not a good alternative.

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