Disposable packaging: Recyclable vs compostable
Updated: Feb 18, 2020
We all heard about the plastic pollution problem. When we talk about plastic, it is important to remember about two main issues: the manufacturing of plastic and its disposal. Plastic is produced from oil, which is a finite resource and has a negative environmental impact. But the impact is not over once we throw plastic away. Its negative impact is just getting stronger. The wildlife can be harmed by eating the plastic or by toxins attached to it once it enters their ecosystems.
A lot of plastic waste appears from food packaging. Is there a solution? Well, let’s look at the possible options. In the last few years many companies started to use “environmentally friendly” packaging, meaning that it causes less damage to the environment.
There are three types:
Reusable packaging that can be cleaned and re-used. For example, glass milk bottles are reused.
Reusable glass bottles
Recyclable packaging that is made of materials that can be used again, usually after processing. Recyclable materials include glass, metal, card and paper.
Biodegradable or compostable packaging that will easily break down in the soil or the atmosphere.
While we are now used hear about the reusable and recycle terminology, terms “biodegradable” and “compostable” can still be confusing. What do they mean exactly?
“Biodegradable” means that a material or product is created from biological sources, such as paper or plants, and will break down into something over time. However, it is a natural process and we do not know what that material or product will break down into and how long it will take as it depends on a number of conditions, including temperature, humidity, oxygen levels, presence of bacteria and time. Some biodegradable products might be dangerous to the environment because they break down into microplastics. Microplastics are small plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters long which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life (from oceanservice). The term “biodegradable” is not correct to use, as this term is very abstractive, since nearly everything will biodegrade in 10,000 years.
“Compostable” material breaks down, under the proper composting conditions, and the resulting elements will have value as a fertiliser. The packaging in this case is made of a blend of different compostable polymers. The plant based source of some of these polymers is wood pulp and corn (from snact). There are strict criteria used to certify packaging as compostable in the UK.
Compostable materials can be recycled at the home composting condition and in the industrial composting facilities. Home composting conditions are not always suitable for recycling compostable packaging as the temperature in a garden compost heap is lower and less constant than in an industrial composting environment. Some retailers, as for example, Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencers' designed packaging that can breakdown in an ordinary home compost bin. Although they will decompose more quickly in a 'hot' bin, these products should break down at roughly the same speed as vegetable waste, even in a 'cool' compost bin (from gardenorganic).
Most compostable packaging however can be composted only in commercial facilities. The process lasts for 12-weeks. The facilities must be certified to EN13432 or its equivalent. It means that a product will degrade into compost only under very specific and rigid criteria which are created in a commercial facility including heating the materials to certain temperature.
During composting, compostable products will break down into carbon dioxide (CO2), water, inorganic compounds and biomass which leaves no visible contaminants or toxic residue/substances. After this process, the waste is turned into a nutrient dense mulch ideal for growing of more plants (source: londonbiopackaging). This process can be done within an IVC (In-Vessel Composting) facility. However, there are no IVC facilities available in and around London, says London Bio Packaging.
Most of the time companies using compostable packaging dispose of it in the same bin as their food waste. What does it mean for compostable packaging?
In London, and for most of the UK, the usual and preferred method for dealing with food waste is via Anaerobic Digestion (AD). For AD, there is a de-packaging stage, when all packaging is pulled out. It happens because AD plants face strict regulations and can’t risk to have anything that isn’t food getting through into the digestion unit. Everything that is removed during this de-packing stage is removed and send to be burnt to make energy including compostable packaging (from Paper-Round). This fact contradict to the whole concept of compostable packaging.
There is still a market gap between compostable packaging production and recycling: there is compostable packaging but not enough composting facilities. Therefore, if we need to use disposable packaging instead of reusable one, best practice would be to choose our supplier wisely, ask how the packaging can be recycled and if there are collection points for this type of packaging. Plastic and other material that can be recycled properly are not a bad solution for disposable packaging. As a next step, compostable packaging manufacturers are already thinking of implementing recycling/composting schemes in London. We will keep an eye out for it!