As this week is International Compost Awareness Week (who knew?!), it seems the perfect time to talk about compostable packaging.
There has been a surge in the number of companies producing and using “compostable” packaging over the last few years, and it can likely be attributed to the shifting public perceptions around plastic and composite packaging usage. With the “Blue Planet Effect” resonating with a large number of people, alternatives to single-use packaging have become of great interest to the public, major brands and the government.
What are the benefits to compostable packaging?
Compostable packaging can be a great example for the biological loop of the Circular Economy. Aside from the obvious benefits in terms of the relatively low end of life treatment costs, the ability to treat and dispose of the waste regardless of food waste contamination levels is a huge plus.
Can be processed with food waste: Compostable packaging is designed to be disposed of with food waste. This means that unlike traditional packaging waste, where any contamination can damage the recyclability, remnant food in compostable packaging does not impact the disposal process. This is quite key when considering maximising post-consumer waste disposal efficiency.
Replenishment of nutrient levels: The aim of compostable packaging is to ensure that when the material is disposed of it produces a nutrient rich fertiliser which can be redistributed into the biosphere, “closing the loop”.
Low cost treatment: Composting is a low-cost method of disposal which often has a lower carbon footprint than landfill, incineration or recycling.
What are the drawbacks?
Largely designed for industrial conditions: Compostable packaging is often designed to primarily be disposed of under industrial conditions; this means that it cannot simply be thrown in your household compost bin and needs to be separately disposed of with food waste.
Lack of consumer knowledge: Even when packaging is compostable under household conditions, an issue that arises is consumer awareness. As there is so much pressure to recycle as much as possible at the moment, people often wrongly put compostable packaging into the recycling bin, leading to not only a loss of material but also a de-valuation of the recycling stream. In a way, the success of a piece of packaging can be its own downfall here; some compostable packaging resembles normal plastic packaging so much that consumers will often dispose of it in their normal recycling facilities.
Diminishing returns: Although the transfer of nutrients back into the soil post composting is good, the process is not perfect. Aside from loss of nutrients, one issue which is key to consider from a Circular Economy perspective is the loss of value of the packaging material itself.
Household Composting Levels: There are concerns that the level of household composting is not high enough to support a large-scale rollout of household compostable packaging.
What classes as “Compostable”?
Generally, to be called “Compostable”, packaging must meet the following criteria:
Disintegration – 90% of material must degrade to <2mm pieces within 12 weeks
Biodegradability – 90% must break down into CO2, water and minerals within 6 Months
Effect on composting process – material must have no negative effect on the composting process
Chemical composition – the material must not have high heavy metal concentration and must only have a minimal impact on the chemical composition of the compost
Who is involved?
There are currently quite a few companies involved in the use and production of compostable packaging. A large number of independent Cafés, Restaurants and Takeaways have jumped on the opportunity to offer their customers a compostable alternative to single-use packaging.
Vegware is a fast-growing packaging manufacturer whom use plant-based material to produce compostable, single-use packaging, with the aim of replacing disruptive packaging materials such as paper / plastic composite coffee cups and sandwich boxes.
Some major supermarkets such as Marks and Spencer and Sainsburys supply compostable packaging which has been specifically designed to be readily compostable in household compost bins.
The use of compostable packaging is certainly on the rise, and it does present good opportunities for circularity in the biological supply chain, however, there are some issues regarding the convenience of disposal as well as consumer awareness of where / how compostable packaging can be disposed of. Another drawback appears to be the split between packaging which is compostable at home and that which requires industrial treatment.
Increased communication would be well received in this area, no doubt as the market continues to grow, consumer awareness and the prevalence of food waste collections will increase. Although compostable packaging might not be the immediate solution to society’s “plastic problem” it does offer some significant benefits and is certainly an area worth watching!