What's the Difference Between Biodegradable, Compostable, and Recyclable?


Biodegradable, Compostable, Recyclable, Oh My!

Nowadays, a single stalk of broccoli wrapped in plastic or a kid’s toy embedded in plastic—then tied down with more plastic and handed to you in one-time-use plastic bag—are enough to make any environmentally-conscious person weep and gnash their teeth. With the concept of Zero Waste becoming increasingly popular, environmental buzzwords about sustainable packaging are swarming in our culture. If you’re confused about all the terms, that’s fine; so were we! Are there differences between them? How do the main forms of sustainable packaging we often hear about—compostable, biodegradable and recyclable—really affect the environment?  Which one is best, ultimately? As we approach the year 2020, sustainability is a necessary consideration for any business, and now several Cannabis industry players are joining the movement to move away from conventional, waste-based packaging toward something that society can embrace and tweet about proudly. Let’s dive in, shall we?

First and foremost, it is imperative that we understand the differences between the terms recyclable, biodegradable and compostable


Recyclable is a tricky word and is frequently misunderstood—or misused. Most people assume that packaging is recyclable if you can toss it in a bin and someone, somewhere, will transform it and reuse it (somehow). However, the truth is so much more complex.

According to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a product is only truly recyclable if “it can be collected, sorted, reprocessed, and ultimately reused in manufacturing or making another item”. Unless it can and very likely will go through all the stages of that process, within the area in which the product is sold…it is not considered recyclable. Currently, only 11 per cent of plastic is recycled in Canada. There are many reasons that recycling is failing in North America. Just a few worth mentioning are the wide variations in recycling programs within neighbouring regions, which can be very confusing for consumers. People tend to throw materials into their recycling bin indiscriminately, mixing non-recyclable and soiled materials in with the rest, which leads to wasted, ruined material and recycling facilities that can’t handle the resulting triage problems, including machines that break down. Also, most local recycling facilities can only handle limited types of materials; the rest is shipped overseas. The main destination country, China, has recently cut their imports of scrap plastic by 96 per cent, sending Canada’s recycling industry into a tailspin. In other words, even when material that can be recycled is carefully sorted into the correct bins and sent to recycling centres, only a tiny fraction is actually transformed and reused.


Biodegradable and Compostable

Often, the words compostable and biodegradable are used interchangeably because people assume that they are one and the same. The crucial difference is the time that the product takes to break down, and the result of that process.

Biodegradable products break down naturally into organic material, without human intervention, in an undefined (but reasonable) amount of time. Think of an apple core left in your garden. To be compostable, a product needs human intervention to control the degradation process (like worms or compost bins), and there are specific standards that must be respected in terms of the time it takes for the product to break down, and what residue is left after the process. In a nutshell, it must break down to biomass (basic organic material) at the same rate as other organics, like plants, and should leave no residue after roughly 3 months. 

Unfortunately, there is no defined regulation around using the term ‘biodegradable’ and it implies that a product is environmentally friendly, but a biodegradable product might take decades to break down once it is sent to a landfill. This is far superior to the rate at which pure plastics break down (roughly 1000 years) but still misleading when the term is used too loosely.




Cannabis Companies and the Environment

With the Cannabis industry taking off in Canada and continued growth expected, it is up to industry leaders to set the standard and recognize that zero-waste packaging is an essential part of connecting with their client base. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Government regulations around packaging create hurdles for those looking to shrink their footprint. In Canada, cannabis packaging must be non-partisan and according to Health Canada, it must "be packaged in an immediate container that is tamper-evident, child-resistant, prevents contamination and keeps cannabis dry." This has created excessive overuse of plastics in an effort to keep packaging out of the hands of minors. The effective packaging of cannabis is still in its infancy, but when first legalized in October 2018, some consumers noticed that packaging often outweighed the product excessively. In one case as noted by the CBC, cannabis packaging dwarfed the actual contents by 7000%. Along with the regulations noted previously, packaging must also be opaque or translucent and be of a single, uniform colour. 

Despite the over packaging of cannabis products, Canada is still in an enviable position. South of the border, several US states have legalized cannabis for recreational use and Washington State was the first to do so in late 2012. The lure of considerable tax revenue is ubiquitous and Canada’s system is similar to that south of the border. Unfortunately, challenges with over packaging is clogging waterways and filling landfills in the Evergreen State. With a 6-year head start in Washington, Canadians have the opportunity to understand what packaging modifications can be made to better serve our country and the environment in the long term.


The Takeaway

So in the end, which method of packaging is better? Well, the recycling industry is struggling, making recyclable materials a tricky and generally inefficient contender. On the other hand, consider that all biodegradable packaging is not identical and that some packing materials may take much longer to degrade than others. Theoretically, all packaging is biodegradable from plastics, to cardboard to rubber but while some materials take days to decompose, others take years.  For that reason, biodegradable packaging should be scrutinized. Certified compostable packaging, however, leaves no residues and decomposes to organic compounds within a three-month period. Some cannabis companies are tuned in to the need for sustainable packaging and are doing their part to join the movement.

Stewart Farms is proudly using compostable material for all their wellness products. Now that’s an environmentally sound move that’s worth getting behind!