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Cut the rubbish: Common sustainable packaging terms

It is easy to feel lost in a tirade of sustainable packaging terms. We know customers want to do the right thing in choosing sustainable packaging, but it can be difficult to know the difference between a product claiming it is biodegradable, compostable, degradable or recyclable.

We are here to cut the rubbish on common sustainable packaging terms and what these end of life options actually mean for our environment.


Biodegradation is a natural process in which materials are transformed into substances of water, carbon and biomass with the help of microorganisms.

However, there is no length of time that a biodegradable packaging product  is required to break down in order to claim biodegradability.

Unless paired with additional information about the timeframe and environment the packaging material can biodegrade in, as well as certificates or test results, biodegradability can be a vague or misleading claim.

There is currently no overarching standard to back up claims about biodegradability1.

Image of biodegradable packaging which has not broken down in environment


This is one of the most confusing packaging terms. We’ve broken this definition into three types of “compostable”.

  1. Industrial compostable - In accordance with Australian Standards AS4736–2006 or EU standard EN13432, these products require industrial composting conditions to break down. Limited infrastructure means these products often go to landfill and generate methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times^ more potent than carbon dioxide.
  2. Home compostable - AS 5810–2010: This is a voluntary certification launched by the Australasian Bioplastics Association2. To be home compostable packaging has to biologically decompose in a composting system within a defined period of time. It must also meet quality criteria in ecotoxicity3.
  3. Plastic free – These items are recyclable or compostable. Food packaging made from paper or board which is plastic free does not have to be certified. This packaging can be recycled to allow the valuable paper fibres to live again, or composted.
Compostable cups sitting on a beach

Degradable refers to a packaging product designed to break down to an unspecified extent, usually in an unspecified time and in an unspecified end environment. This term is vague and is not necessarily a sustainable option because of concerns with microplastics in the environment.

Packaging or a packaging component4 is recyclable where the components or resources used in that product can live again. This includes where item can be recovered and sorted in a stream where at least 70% of its weight can be recycled into another product.

Part of this definition includes at least 80% of the overall population has convenient access to a service that collects the packaging or packaging component, kerbside recycling in Australia is an example of wide access to collection.

Image of bales of cardboard