This article looks into compostable packaging from the point of view of sustainability. How sustainable is this new alternative touted as a mainstream solution for disposable single use plastics?
As with any newly introduced product, there is always a small risk that clever marketing and effective salespeople are able to introduce a product that is inferior to the one it is replacing. This is especially the case in areas such as sustainability which can be complex and alien to purchasing managers. The risk of this happening is also increased in the post Blue Planet era, when companies are desperate to be seen to be doing something to solve the problem of plastic pollution.
People are becoming increasingly aware that plastic, whilst it has many impressive properties that have served the food, drink and retail industry well becomes problematic when it escapes into the environment. This is because it takes an exceptionally long time to biodegrade. This has been the catalyst behind the meteoric rise of compostable packaging.
However, these newly introduced compostable bioplastics also take a reasonable amount of time to biodegrade, even in ideal conditions. This means that they are no panacea to the problem of plastic pollution. There is also the possibility of rebound effects, where individuals may litter more frequently or become indifferent to littering if they believe the packaging will biodegrade with a short passing of time.
The appropriate way to dispose of this newly introduced packaging is through a food waste collection, but as we will see in a moment that is far from being a simple solution.
Most food waste is taken to an anaerobic digestion facility. The food waste will be screened before being admitted into the chamber to sift out things that should not be there, including conventional plastics. These facilities operate at a high tempo and it is during this phase that the compostable packaging is stripped out because it is indistinguishable from conventional plastics. This removed material will then be sent to landfill or to an energy from waste plant. Not exactly the high-flying sustainable solution that was promised. There is also a big question as to whether compostable packing will ever fit in with a food waste collection as the times they take to decompose do not match up.
An ideal solution would be a composting service that is tailored exactly for compostable plastic packaging instead of attempts to compost it with food and garden waste which it shares few similarities. That would allow it to flourish and for more of the material to be composted, when currently this is not the case.
I think it is worth considering the waste hierarchy when thinking about this new compostable plastic packaging.
In the post Blue Planet era, whilst there has been some emphasis on prevention, I think that a lot more could be done to reduce the amount of waste that is generated as that is the most sustainable option.
It is also worth pointing out that conventional plastic packaging is recyclable and therefore, if it is used and then placed in the correct container for recycling, that would be a more sustainable solution.
I think compostable plastic packaging is an example where the packaging industry has moved too quickly for the waste industry, which is struggling to catch up. Perhaps when the market grows, there can be a better alternative than the compostable packaging making its way through the waste industry to end up at a landfill or in an energy from waste plant.
What you need to know
This article looked into compostable packaging from the point of view of sustainability.
We looked into how Blue Planet has changed the game for disposable plastics and is forcing businesses to demonstrate to customers that they are acting on their concerns.
We looked into the properties of these biodegradable plastics and the possibility that litter could rise if there is a widespread belief that the litter will disappear shortly.
We looked into how these new biodegradable plastics will fair if they are sent away via a food waste collection. In all likelihood they will be stripped out and sent to a landfill or burned.
We looked into the waste hierarchy and what it tells us about how sustainable these solutions are.
Overall, there are properties of conventional plastics that are bad if they enter the environment as pollution, but they come with the benefit that they can be recycled.
Compostable plastic packaging comes with the advantage that if it enters the environment as pollution, it will biodegrade, but to dispose of them conventionally is problematic and big question marks hang over the sustainability of this process.
Thank you for reading,
By Barnaby Nash
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