The Differences Between Recyclable, Compostable, and Biodegradable Packaging.

November 17, 2022
minute read
Recyclable, Compostable, and Biodegradable icons

From nutrition facts to washing instructions, packaging can teach you a lot about a product – including information about its disposal. Properly discarding an item and its packaging is a crucial step in the life cycle of a purchase. Whether something is recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable, buyers and brands must be aware of these commonly used terms.

There are many phrases to keep track of, so it’s important to understand exactly what’s being communicated. Is biodegradable just another word for compostable? Can compostable items be recycled?

Spoiler alert – these words aren’t interchangeable, and each one has a distinct meaning. Familiarizing ourselves with these three terms can help us make more informed purchases as consumers and design smarter packaging for brands and businesses.

What are the Benefits of eco-friendly packaging?

Increasingly, consumers are becoming more environmentally driven. In their actions, purchasing habits, and lifestyles – in fact, 45% of Gen Z buyers stopped buying from brands because of sustainability or ethics concerns. It is also hard to ignore that #ecofriendly has over 3.5 billion views on TikTok and over 18 billion posts on Instagram.

As your business shifts toward more sustainable products and practices, you need to remember that your packaging is also an important aspect of your sustainability story.

So, how can sustainable packaging help your business?

recyclable icon


“Can be recyclable if collected, sorted, reprocessed, and ultimately reused in manufacturing or making another item.”

Let’s start with our preferred method of disposal – recycling. Recyclable products can be processed and reused to create another product. Resources (a.k.a. recycled items) are diverted from life in a landfill and continue to serve our needs. Shredded documents, for example, can be transformed into cardboard boxes that safely transport online shopping to your front door. And the pizza box that last night’s dinner was delivered in? That could become the tissue paper your next online purchase is wrapped in.

Our SatinWrap® line of tissue paper has been evaluated by How2Recycle®

Paper products and packaging are ideal candidates for recycling. Our very own SatinWrap® colors and prints, for example, are not only brandable void fill solutions, but they are certified as widely recyclable by How2Recycle®. Tissue paper is made from renewable resources, lightweight, space-saving, and easily recognizable as a recyclable product to consumers.

“How2Recycle® is a standardized labeling system that clearly communicates recycling instructions to the public.”

Source: How2Recycle®

Speaking of renewables, waste materials created during paper production can be used to fuel further production. Paper packaging is often produced using recycled materials – our SatinWrap® 100 line, for example, is made from 100% recycled fiber, while our other SatinWrap® colors contain up to 70% recycled content – further cementing its status as a superior form of sustainable packaging.

compostable icon


“Capable of breaking down into natural elements in a controlled compost environment.”

Composting can be an excellent choice when it comes to organic material, such as food waste. Organic/natural items can be great candidates for the right kind of compost environment. Similar to recycling, composting minimizes landfill volume.

Our EcoLite grease-resistant food paper is CMA (Compost Manufacturing Alliance) certified

Our EcoLite food grade paper, for example, is the perfect candidate for composting. EcoLite is Compost Manufacturing Alliance certified. Similar to the increasingly widespread How2Recycle labels that indicate details about recyclability, CMA certification serves as a trustworthy guide for consumers to identify a truly compostable product.

So why is composting not always the best option? Although it’s considered an eco-friendly disposal method, composting does not allow you to reuse materials like you can when recycling and isn’t as widespread and available as recycling.

In fact, most American households do not have access to composting through government-supported curbside collection. Accessibility and ease of disposal are key components to a successful sustainable practice.

There’s also the matter of what’s left once the original materials have decomposed. Inks, adhesives, and other chemicals present in compost can risk contamination of soil and waterways. And even if they lack undesirable substances, non-organic compostable items such as compostable packaging don’t bring the valuable nutrients that their organic counterparts would, which results in a less desirable soil.

Properly identifying compostable items is critical, as it's an easily misunderstood – and misused – term. As composting’s popularity and infrastructure grow, it will become a more viable option.

biodegradable icon


“Must completely break down and decompose into natural elements within a reasonable amount of time after disposal.”

Microorganisms – bacteria, fungi, and algae – break down biodegradable material over time until it transforms said material into biomass, water, and naturally occurring gasses (such as methane and carbon dioxide). The amount of time it will take for the process to complete is variable. One should exercise caution with this generic term, which doesn’t provide much clarity around the disposal and ultimate fate of the biodegradable item in question.

The speed and success of a biodegradable product or package differs depending on the environment it’s placed in. It might surprise you to know that if improperly disposed of, a banana peel can take up to two years to biodegrade!

The final product is not reusable like recyclable material, nor is it providing rich nutrients to the soil like properly composted items do. Although something that’s biodegradable is better than nothing, recycling and composting easily rank higher by comparison.

Final thoughts

Not all methods of disposal are created equal. Whether designing the perfect custom-printed void fill for your eCommerce business or simply wondering which bin to throw your leftovers in – knowing the meanings of recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable will make a huge difference.

Are you interested in switching to more eco-friendly packaging? Browse our customizable and sustainable packaging products.