Compostable, biodegradable and degradable materials? Decoding these common terms…

29th November 2022

Charlotte Davies

Before working within the waste and packaging world, I would actively choose the ‘green’, ‘compostable’ or ‘degradable’ based products or packaged products over the normal alternatives. I believed I was doing my bit for the environment helping to avoid those ‘awful’ plastics.

Entering the waste and resources industry and seeing materials flow through the system and the end-of-life opportunities for products within the UK, led me to want to unpick what compostable, or biodegradable actually mean?

The definitions:



Materials can breakdown naturally (without the need for added chemicals). The waste left at the end may not be beneficial to the composted soil.



Materials do not decompose naturally and require chemical additives to facilitate breakdown. Natural breakdown requires sunlight and oxygen and therefore degradable materials fail to decompose within landfill and are also not recyclable. Ultimately these materials just breakdown into small pieces instead of returning to the Earth.




Materials must decompose within 12 weeks and enhance soil quality with non-toxic products. Composting is an accelerated form of biodegradation. When talking about packaging or products there are two categories: home or commercial composting, requiring industrial composting facilities with controlled higher temperatures.


One key issue for biodegradable and compostable materials is that the UK local authorities rarely collect these material streams from households or businesses, for instance compostable packaging would likely not be accepted within your food or green waste collections. Therefore, these material types end up contaminating recycling streams or contributing to general waste either being incinerated or landfilled. Consumer confusion is another issue derived from compostable or biodegradable packaging with ‘eco-littering’, a study conducted by RawPac, which warned 1 in 5 consumers admitted to dropping ‘compostable’ food and drink packaging outside. Others worry the growing biodegradable packaging market discourages consumers from reducing waste in the first place, which should be the first consideration of the waste hierarchy.

However, this is not a one-sided story, and compostable or biodegradable products and packaging are mostly derived from renewable materials or biological sources such as sugar cane or maize helping companies to reduce carbon footprints cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which is all part of the effort, right? While cutting emissions is critical to combating climate change, others warn with continued population growth and food demands, this draws from our valuable food stocks. Additionally, to help standardise material claims and reduce consumer confusion some standards have been developed, such as:

TUV Austria offer a range of product verifications to certify and label for materials that sufficiently meet biodegradation or compostable demands in line with the European Bioplastics EN 13432:2000 standard.


Ultimately, after reducing and reusing there is always going to be a requirement for the containment or wrapping of some food or pharmaceutical articles, suggesting there is a place within the market for compostable or biodegradable packaging. This said, producers should endeavour to consider the end-of-life solutions, which in the UK is currently poor for materials of this kind. We need industry growth to enable the processing of biodegradable and compostable materials with supporting kerb side network to offer collection. Despite this, an intense focus on improved consumer awareness and drive to reduce, reuse and recycle materials, keeping them circulating through the value chain, with decomposition options second to this.

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