A debate simmers between proponents of two kinds of sustainable packaging material.

In one corner: Users of compostable materials, those that can be heated after use and converted to a form of fertilizer to be put back into the earth. On the other side: users of oxo-biodegradable plastics, which proponents say can be recycled and break down when placed in landfills or other waste facilities.

Which material is preferable depends on which side of the sustainable packaging industry you talk to.

“Both are vying for the same market share,” said Steve Greenfield, director of sales and marketing for NNZ Inc., Lawrenceville, Ga. “We sell both products and let our customers decide which is the one is for them.”

Courtesy Earthcycle Packaging

Earthcycle Packaging Ltd., Vancouver, British Columbia, makes its packaging trays from palm fiber, a backyard compostable material. Industrial compostable materials, however, must be taken to a facility to be composted, a process that some argue is too inconvenient for consumers.

Greenfield said there are positives and negatives associated with both products.

“The upside of PLA (plastics, which are compostable) is that they’re corn-based,” Greenfield said. “If composted correctly, it turns back to humus in a short period of time.”

Humus consists of organic acids and carbons which can be put back into the ground safely.

“The downside of PLA is that it’s an industrial compostable material and not backyard,” Greenfield said. “There are not many facilities, and getting it composted isn’t as easy.”

That hits at the heart of the debate, which was stirred recently when a British oxo-biodegradable plastics company, Symphony Environmental, put out a statement that not only touted its own product, but was critical of composting and compostable products.

The basis of the Symphony statement is that there aren’t enough industrial composting facilities, those that heat material to 140 degrees for two weeks, for companies or individuals to conveniently compost and very few homes have capabilities in their back yards to compost. Symphony believes home-composting should not be encouraged, because materials can be contaminated with meat or fish residues and not heated high enough to kill the pathogens.

According to the statement, most compostable materials get thrown into recycle bins where they can’t be recycled and contaminate the recycling stream.

The statement then goes on to espouse oxo-biodegradable plastics, saying they can be recycled and self-destruct in an open environment, leaving no harmful residues.

Proponents of composting argue that last point.

It’s true, oxo-biodegradables contain additives that break down plastic when exposed to sunlight. But, Shannon Boase, founder and chief executive officer for Earthcycle Packaging Ltd., Vancouver, British Columbia, said the material breaks down into microscopic pellets, and the petroleum-based substance still releases methane in decomposition.

“The position that the oil used to make plastic is waste is laughable,” Boase said. “Petroleum is a non-renewable resource, whether it’s waste or not.”

Boase pointed to a recent statement by the New York-based Biodegradable Products Institute that stated that biodegradable plastics would not fulfill consumers’ expectations of complete and natural decomposition within one year under landfill conditions.

Like compostables, Greenfield said oxo-biodegradables had their pluses and minuses.

“The upside of oxo is it’s relatively cost-effective,” he said. “It does break down over time — a much longer period of time — but it does break down.

“The downside is it takes (up to five) years versus 16 weeks to break down, and it breaks down into tiny particles of plastic and is not degradable.”
In the end, Greenfield said, “both have their place in the realm of packaging.”

Still other companies, such as San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Earthbound Farm, have switched to packaging made from 100% postconsumer plastic, cutting down on the amount of waste and energy usage in manufacturing the material.

Stephen McCarthy, director of biodegradable polymer research center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said, in the long run, composting is the answer.

“I think it’s a matter of people paying for their waste,” he said. “If you limit people with taxes … they get a certain size (trash) barrel, and everything else has to be composted or recycled or they have to pay another fee. Then, you’ll start to see more people recycling and composting.

“It’s absolutely the future.”