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Are compostable alternatives to plastics all they’re cracked up to be?

In the wake of Blue Planet 2 and the storm of negative media attention on plastics, we’re often asked for advice on procuring packaging. Here we make our position on compostable alternatives clear, so we can help you figure out if compostable packaging is the right choice for your business.

What is compostable packaging?

Compostable packaging is made from Polylactic Acid (PLA) which is a form of plastic made from plant materials, rather than oil. Whilst plants are obviously a more sustainable resource than oil, which we’re frequently told will run out in a matter of decades, it’s important to consider not just the early life of the products you use but the full journey, from cradle to grave.

Is compostable packaging more sustainable?

In short. It depends where you are in the country.

Certified compostable products (EN 13432) are only compostable under industrial composting conditions, which means they need to be heated to 70 degrees and regularly turned within an IVC (In-Vessel Composting) facility. In these conditions, 90% of the material comprising the packaging will convert to CO2 within 6 months.[i]

This sounds good, right? An end to the mounds of coffee cups and plastic cutlery shamefully filling our incinerators and landfill sites. But what if we told you that there are no IVC facilities available in and around London.

Most businesses using compostable packaging dispose of it in the same bin as their food waste. But for London, and for most of the UK, the usual and preferred method for dealing with food waste is via Anaerobic Digestion (AD). In fact, AD is the government’s preferred disposal method for food waste, with its superior carbon savings in processing food waste compared with IVC.

At the majority of AD plants there is a rigorous de-packaging stage where all packaging is pulled out regardless of whether it’s compostable or not (no machinery exists to distinguish the two). This is because AD plants must comply with very strict PAS10 regulations to control the quality of the fertiliser they produce. They can’t risk anything that isn’t food getting through into the digestion unit. Everything that is removed during this de-packing stage is packed off to an incinerator where it will be burnt to make energy.

So, as things stand, in London, there is no benefit in putting compostable packaging in a food recycling bin.  In fact, here in the Capital, buying compostable alternatives to plastic is a false economy. A compostable coffee cup in your canteen or cafe might give the impression that you’re doing the right thing. But without a means to actually compost that cup, it’s a waste of money.

If compostable packaging doesn’t solve the plastic problem, then what does?

First and foremost, you should look at replacing single-use items with reusable ones. You could swap takeaway cups for mugs, offer a discount for bringing a reusable cup, or use metal cutlery instead of plastic.

Next up. Buy single-use products that can be recycled.

One of the major barriers to plastics recycling in the UK is that there are so many types on the market, and the plastics recycling industry is only set up to deal with those which are easy to recycle and predominant.  Talk to your suppliers and buy products that are made using readily recyclable plastics such as PET and HDPE. Avoid black plastics like the plague.

Make sure the disposable coffee cups you’re using can be recycled. Paper Round has developed a cup recycling scheme for non-compostable, paper takeaway cups, the virgin paper used to make these cups is turned into deluxe paper using the latest cup recycling technology.

We can accept coffee cups produced by all major retailers (Costa, Starbucks, Pret, etc). However, the following cups cannot be recycled:

  • Compostable cups. The lining in these cups breaks down which would damage the quality of the upcycled paper.
  • Cups with corrugated cardboard or outer walls made of brown paper. This is because corrugated card and brown paper are low-quality products that cannot be made into high quality paper.

 

[i] https://treadingmyownpath.com/2018/03/22/biodegradable-plastic-is-it-really-eco-friendly

Harriet Hird

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