Is That Food Packaging Biodegradable?

Ryan Van HornCustom Paper Products, Custom Print Deli Paper

DirtEver wonder how long it takes the packaging around your food to biodegrade? We did some digging for you, metaphorically speaking!

Let’s compare food, paper, aluminum foil, plastic bags, and polystyrene foam. Assuming all of these things are in the ground, surrounded by water, sunlight, soil, and microorganisms, here are the estimates:

  • Food scraps: 1-6 months
  • Paper: 2-5 months
  • Aluminum foil: 80-100 years
  • Plastic bags: At least 1,000 years
  • Polystyrene: At least 1,000 years

You might be wondering how can scientists figure out that plastic will last 1,000 years if plastic has only been around for about 50 years. Good of you to wonder! They do it by extrapolating measurements taken from a sample exposed to the elements for a shorter time. The carbon dioxide gas given off by microbes and the number of molecules broken down by sunlight are two common measurements.

One other thing to mention: In a landfill, where there might not be water, sunlight, or microorganisms, things can take considerably longer. A group at the University of Arizona unearthed some waste from a landfill and found recognizable corn cobs, hot dogs, and newspaper with readable print from 1952!

Perhaps someday we’ll all be composting. Until then, we recommend going with paper, as it’s the most biodegradable wrapping around. Except for banana peels, that is.