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Labeling Compostable Products and Packaging

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Most compostable products, particularly bioplastics, have advanced tremendously in recent years. New compostable solutions often mimic non-compostable alternatives so well that they actually look, function, and perform similarly to their petroleum-based counterparts.

These innovations have made it very easy for brands to shift from conventional packaging to compostable packaging - without impact to the function or look of the packaging.

Unfortunately similarities in appearance can cause difficulties for consumers and composters.

To help create a more robust composting awareness, and improve the composting system, a number of municipalities and states have begun enacting legislation around the clear and accurate labeling of compostable products.

Compostable cellophane bags with sticker that indicates compostability

Maryland introduced laws in 2017 that state a product cannot be labeled compostable unless it meets ASTM standards, and prohibit the use of terms such as biodegradable, degradable, or decomposable. San Francisco has criteria for compostables that state compostable plastic products must be clearly labeled "Compostable" in order to distinguish them from conventional plastic.

The newest state to introduce similar legislation is Washington State. HB 1569 came into effect in July 2020 that restricts use of compostability and biodegradability claims for products that do not meet standards identified by the state.

California also has a similar bill on the books, and we hope many more will follow. When paired with laws such as Vermont’s food scrap law, banning food scraps from regular trash collection, we have a huge opportunity to reduce a significant portion of the waste that would ordinarily be sent to landfills.

Compostable Product Labeling Legislation

When no official standards are in place, labeling of compostable products can vary wildly. From misleading claims on non-compostables, to no indication of compostability at all. This may prevent compostables from reaching the compost facility, or cause plastic contamination in the compost stream.

Accurate Labeling Stops Greenwashing

Greenwashing is where a company will use sustainable-sounding phrases and words to make a product sound more eco-friendly than it is. Terms such as biodegradable and oxo-degradable, as well as sourcing statements such as Made From Corn can mislead consumers into thinking a product belongs in the composting bin when it does not.

Some of these terms have been misused in such a way that restricting usage of them has become an integral part of composting legislation! Both San Francisco and Washington State composting legislation prohibits the use of these misleading environmental marketing claims.

The Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable

Consumer Confusion

It is important to avoid customer confusion by communicating clearly about sustainable packaging innovation and benefits. When compostable packaging is not clearly labeled it can end up in recycling streams or being sent to landfill.

Non-compostable products can end up in the composting waste stream. Similar to Wishful Recycling - disposing of non-compostable products in the compost bin causes more harm than good.

Composter Confusion

A compostable clamshell container looks very similar to a plastic container - without adequate labeling it is virtually impossible to know if a product truly is compostable.

Composters will err on the side of caution to avoid contamination, and will remove an unlabeled product from the composting stream entirely.

“Without real awareness of the problem, and a plan to work on solutions to contamination, compost facilities will continue to face rising costs, and may potentially limit the feedstocks they are willing to take in.”

Is Compost Contamination Solvable?
Clinton Sander, A1 Organics, for the Compost Manufacturing Alliance

How Should I Label my Compostable Packaging?

Compostable zipper pouch with sticker that indicates compostability

Compostable products should be clearly and visibly labeled as compostable. This can be done via a sticker on the product (make sure the sticker is also compostable!) or directly printed.

The US Composting Council provides labeling guidelines for compostable products, with example statement language: USCC - Compostable Products.

The Biodegradable Products Institute have also released labeling guidelines for compostable products: Guidelines for the Labeling and Identification of Compostable Products and Packaging

We've created pre-printed compostable stickers that you can use to easily indicate that your packaging is compostable. 

Why Label My Compostable Packaging?

In addition to reducing contamination and confusion regarding compostables, labeling your compostable packaging opens up opportunities to promote your eco-friendly products and to inform your customers about the benefits of composting!

Compostable packaging demonstrates your brand's authenticity and commitment to creating a circular economy. It shows your customers that you care about the effect your product has on the environment - from beginning to end. You don’t simply provide a potentially compostable product, but a product that will be composted.

Composting and the Circular Economy - Where Does My Waste Go?

At the very least, using compostable packaging shows customers that you understand that it is as much about developing a mainstream composting system for the future as it is about items composting today.

How? Your packaging gets customers talking about composting! 

While composting has been around for a long time, the idea of compostable packaging is still relatively new. The more people we have on board, the better we can show that, after reducing or eliminating, compostable packaging is the most sustainable option for a circular economy.