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Compostables leave a bad taste

Avoiding landfill. Soil improvement. Bio-energy. It all sounds good sustainable stuff. But does compostable packaging really deliver the more sustainable alternative it claims?

If the queues at the recent Packaging Innovations Show are anything to go by it seems many people believe so. One proponent claimed you could sow a seed in your compostable coffee cup, plant the cup in your garden and watch it magically disappear. My garden’s already adorned by fried chicken boxes, thanks to local foxes. Semi-composted coffee cups would not improve the look.

The trouble is compostable packaging certified to EN13432 doesn’t break down in home composting. Even the council’s thin compostable food caddy liners don’t disappear completely after 12 months in my composter, adding the glamour of decaying plastic shreds to my mulching. Imagine a year’s worth of plastic trays strewn around the flower beds. I can’t.

So why not add them to food or garden waste collections? Garden waste collections by and large go to industrial composters which certainly can deal with EN13432 standard packaging. But increasingly councils are charging for these collections, so residents are likely to avoid using them. Food collections, on the other hand, are more likely to go for anaerobic digestion.

At best, gloopy semi-decayed compostables give AD plants indigestion. At worst, AD operators are unable to distinguish between compostable and other plastics. Plastic packaging’s seen as a problem and they rake it out. These operators aren’t likely to welcome council collections with high levels of contaminants, real or perceived.

Nor does anyone want compostables going into recycling bins and boxes. The risk to plastics recycling is very real, potentially undermining the painful progress towards a circular economy.

It doesn’t have to be this way. To be fair, some compostables producers do provide collection services to their commercial clients. It’s a start, but they need to go further.

As the beverage carton sector realised a decade ago, you cannot make credible sustainability claims unless you’re prepared to solve the problems your ‘peculiar’ packaging presents existing infrastructure. They built partnerships with councils and invested in domestic collections and processing. Now it’s a success story.

As things stand, compostables’ sustainability marketing claims are questionable. Until producers match their claims with action, funding domestic collections, compostables are likely to remain designated as Not Yet Recycled under the On-Pack Recycling Labelling system. Let’s walk the talk.

Jane Bevis, chair, On-Pack Recycling Label, OPRL

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