The truth about compostable packaging?

With the rise of people choosing to pass on plastic, the range of supposedly sustainable, compostable, disposable items has increased significantly but what is the truth about compostable packaging and is it good for the environment?

Do we understand the difference between biodegradable and compostable?

Unfortunately, these terms are often used interchangeably, but they mean very different things and oxo-biodegradable materials have now been banned Europe wide. This is because they do not meet the rapid biodegradation timescale (90% within 180 days) prescribed by composting standards such as ASTM D6400 and EN13432.

And whilst biodegradable items can break down with the help of bacteria or other living organisms, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good for the planet.

Many so-called compostable plastic bags biodegrade into tiny pieces in around 20 years but they are still harmful to the environment – the resulting micro-particles are indestructible and get into water courses and rivers and then into the food chain.

Compostable on the other hand must be made from organic matter and will completely break down to make nutrient rich compost – but without special treatment, compostable coffee cups and the various formats of compostable food to go packaging still take years to breakdown because of the PLA coating that is used to make them leak proof – so the majority must be industrially processed which requires significant energy to heat the waste to 70 degrees.

As a consequence, only 38% of compostable packaging is currently converted to compost with the rest sent to landfill due to the absence of appropriate processing facilities in the UK.

And whilst after processing there is no residual material, is this actually a good thing?

The Europe wide and UK adopted 2025 Single Use Materials Pact is focused on encouraging reuse and recycling rather than disposal so that we are not simply substituting the reduction of one finite resource by using another.

There is much to be done with material specification limitations (to reduce sorting and streamline processing) and improvements to recycling facilities, so that recycling rates can be increased from our current 50% reclaim level in the UK.

In short, compostable is not the environmental panacea that it is widely believed to be. The energy needed to industrially compost the waste combined with the total absence of reusable material after single use doesn’t make environmental sense overall.

If you’d like to find out more about how we have been helping clients understand the truth about compostable packaging, take a look at Street Food Box, our own, exciting initiative to reduce single use plastics.

If you’d like to find out more about how we have been helping clients understand the truth about compostable packaging, take a look at Street Food Box, our own, exciting initiative to reduce single use plastics.

And if you’d like to read my personal story about Street Food Box, take a look here.

 

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