Don’t be Green-Washed by “Biodegradable” Packaging

There was a knock on the door.  I knew right away what it was – the package finally arrived.  It was the birthday gift I had been impatiently awaiting all month.  It was from an old friend who lives across the globe so it’s always a great feeling to get something from him.  After signing for it, I immediately began tearing at the box like a younger version of myself on Christmas Day, rife with anticipation and fixed with determination.

As I was childishly digging through the contents of the package, I couldn’t help but notice how much of the packaging was labeled “biodegradable”. The knowledge that I could rest assured while tossing all this irrelevant material into the trash only added to the unyielding bliss of the moment.

biodegradable packaging

However, now that all the excitement has subsided, I can’t help but to wonder what does this term “biodegradable” actually mean?  And how is it different from “compostable”?  They are both terms that are frequently thrown around; yet, very few people actually understand the ambiguities involved. I decided to learn more. What I found would take me into the deceitful world of green-product marketing.

When something is biodegradable, it means it can be broken down into smaller pieces over time until it is ultimately consumed by micro-organisms.  Sounds great, right?  Wrong.  Technically, almost any material can be considered biodegradable even if it breaks down in hundreds or thousands of years.  The reality is that the term “biodegradable” has very few standards applied in a limited scope; however, progress is being made.

Because of this, companies have been making off like bandits by using the term as a marketing ploy.  It makes people feel like they are doing the right thing by sending it off to a landfill where they think it will quickly break down and return to the planet.  However, as many researchers have discovered, actual breakdown of anything in landfills is rare.

There’s actually a name for this type of misleading practice and it’s called “green-washing”.  Essentially, it’s a way for companies to take  advantage of environmentally-minded consumers who are simply trying to do the right thing.

The term “compostable” on the other hand, does have international standards defined by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). If something is labeled “compostable” it means the material breaks down at a rate similar to other known compostable material (typically 90 days), disintegrates to the extent that it cannot be distinguished from the finished compost product, and leaves no toxic residue.

Now, before you go tossing all your waste labeled “compostable” in your household compost pile, it’s important to keep in mind that these standards only apply to breakdown in recognized municipal or industrial composting facilities (you can find your local facility here).

Due to “green-washing” methods that many companies use, disposing of your waste in an environmentally responsible way can seem a daunting task.  Thankfully, there are third party organizations, like the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), working to make sure manufacturers, government officials, and consumers understand the differences between labels like “biodegradable” and “compostable”.  Having an independent and reputable third-party approval, is a good indicator that you are making the right choice for the environment.

Article by Alaric W. Wimer



Defining compostable. Retrieved from:

Hilmantel, R. Compostable vs. biodegradable vs. recyclable.  Retrieved from:    

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