In the land of sustainable products, customers tend to have a lot of questions. What does it mean to say something is “compostable”? What about “biodegradable”? Does this apply to everywhere on Earth or just one specific, controlled environment? The product itself or the packaging as well? How can you guarantee you’re not stretching the truth? The list goes on and on. You also run into the issue of greenwashing constantly — when sustainable products use vague and drawn out language to make a product seem more sustainable or environmentally friendly than it actually is. It’s not an easy world to market into. But there is a simple, guaranteed way to avoid greenwashing and mitigate any risk for your customers: get your compostable products certified.
What does it mean for a compostable or sustainable product to be certified? It means your claims of sustainability are backed by science and confirmed by an impartial, reputable, 3rd party organization. Certifications make it abundantly clear to your customers and competitors that you’ve put in the effort to create and provide a product that is truly beneficial to the environment, rather than detrimental. They prove that your product is supported not only by your company, but by scientific evidence and the approval of a 3rd party certifying body. Seems like a no-brainer right? We definitely think so. However, the testing and certification process can take a long time, and should test results miss the mark by even half a percent, the entire research and design process has to start over, meaning more time and money need to be invested. But the results are worth it, and prove to your customers that you’re in this industry for the right reasons.
There are two main certifying bodies worldwide for compostable products: BPI (the Biodegradable Products Institute, headquartered in the US), and the TUV Austria Group (headquartered in Europe). Test standards can come from a variety of reputable organizations worldwide, including ASTM (the American Society for Testing and Materials), and EN (indicating a European standard). Most test standards have corresponding versions in different countries (for example, ASTM D6400 is equivalent to EN 13432 for the industrial composting of bioplastic materials), and the certifying bodies will recognize equivalent test results.
The certification process can get complicated quickly. We’ll break it down into seven steps to help guide you through the process:
- Determine which certifications your product will require. This depends on the material type, as well as the most likely disposal method. For example, a PLA single-use fork will require an industrial compost certification because it is made from an industrially compostable material. This can be done either with BPI’s Industrial Compost Certification or TUV’s OK compost INDUSTRIAL.
- Once you have determined which certifications you will need, determine which test standards correspond to those certifications. For our PLA fork example, you will need an ASTM D6400 test for BPI, or an EN 13432 test for TUV. If you have a product that requires multiple certifications (like a PHA straw for example), be sure to determine the necessary test standards required for each certification scheme.
- Find a lab to run those test standards for you. Make sure the selected lab has been approved by the desired certifying body or your test results will not be accepted. Once you find a lab capable of performing the test standard, and that is approved by the certifying body, send them samples of your product and have them run the standard. This can take between 6 and 12 months, depending on the test standard being run.
- Once you have passing test results in hand from your lab, you will submit an application to the corresponding certifying body for the certifications you need. Along with your application, you will also submit product samples, a product ID or SKU, and an example of the artwork showing where certification logos will be displayed on the product, so the certifying body may complete a full evaluation.
- With all materials in-hand, the certifying body will review all of the test results, specs, and samples to determine if you indeed do qualify for the certification you have applied for. With the spike in interest for certified sustainable products, this process can take upwards of 5 weeks, depending on the interest in the particular certification you have applied for. There will be back and forth between the certifying body and your organization, as well as your material suppliers, as questions are raised and answered to ensure the compostability and biodegradability of the products you submit. The process is extremely thorough, which is another reason the timeline can stretch longer than 5 weeks.
- Once all questions have been answered and materials reviewed, the certifying body will issue your company an official certificate and certification number. This certificate and certification number correspond to a specific product or product line made by your company. Your product line SKU’s and product descriptions will then be listed on the certifying body’s website as approved products. You will also be issued official certification logos that can be used on packaging and marketing materials, along with instructions and restrictions for utilizing said logos (i.e., color and size requirements, etc.). Your compostable/biodegradable product is now officially certified! You can communicate your certifications via text, logo, and other formats on marketing materials and packaging, as well as to your customers.
- The final step has to do with the situation where one of your customers wants to communicate your certification to their end user customers. Because your certification number is specific to your company, your customers cannot simply utilize it as if it was their own. There are two options for a customer in this situation: 1) they can list your company as the manufacturer somewhere on the marketing piece or the packaging where the logo is being used or 2) they can obtain a sublicense from the certifying body that allows them to communicate their connection to your certification. The first option is the simplest, however many customers would rather not reveal their manufacturing partners, especially on newer market products. The sublicense process normally takes between 3-6 weeks, during which the customer must submit an application, along with their own SKU’s corresponding to your products, to the certifying body. Their application is reviewed, an agreement is issued, payment exchanged, and the certifying body issues your customer their own unique certification number and logos to utilize in marketing and on packaging.
The world of compostability and biodegradability certifications continues to expand. As new materials are popularized, new certification schemes and test standards are needed to guarantee the sustainability of these new products and materials. UrthPact and our material partners are proud to hold a variety of certifications, including TUV HOME, TUV INDUSTRIAL, BPI, and TUV MARINE. We have also worked on CMA (Compost Manufacturing Alliance) certifications, as well as ASTM, EN, and other test standards. We have a wealth of knowledge and experience in this field that we want to share with the rest of the compostable products community, so that we can all provide the best possible products for the planet, and for our customers. Certifications are what allow us to do that. They show the effort we are willing to put in as manufacturers to protect our customers and the planet, as well as the integrity we hold in our communications. Having certified products sets you apart from the rest of the field, and guarantees your spot as part of the truly sustainable future.