Compostable packaging – the evolution of single use disposable packaging.
Many business have begun replacing their plastic foodservice disposables, opting instead for packaging that is compostable and made from less toxic, less harmful materials. Media attention and non-profits have raised consumer awareness on the negative environmental impact of humanity’s excessive consumption of plastic packaging. It is no longer only happening in some remote part of the ocean, we can now see the devastating effect first hand as plastic fragments litter every beach in the world, birds and marine animals ingest this plastic with lethal consequences and it's slowly making its way up our food chain and into our bodies. There is currently four times more plastic in our oceans than plankton. We can no longer ignore the problem and we should all be looking for solutions.
One such solution is to replace single use foodservice packaging made from conventional durable plastics derived from finite fossil resources with alternative less durable compostable materials that are more suited to the short functional life of these products and that can at the end of their lifecycle rapidly biodegrade and return the embodied nutrients back into the cycle.
These materials should be rapidly renewable, sustainably sourced, non durable and capable of being organically recycled and non toxically re-assimilated into the earth along with any food residue they may contain. This is the concept behind the new circular economy model that is slowly but surely replacing the current outdated linear model whereby we extract resources at a rate faster than they can be replenished and instead of recycling and reusing the materials, they are down-cycled and their value degraded when they are discarded to rot away in landfill.
Many bioplastics and materials such as paper and sugarcane pulp are compostable, composting is nature's way of recycling organic matter. Compostable materials are ideally suited for the production of single use foodservice disposables as this packaging will often be contaminated with food residues. The containers can be disposed of along with the remaining food residue and with very little input, they will rapidly and naturally be converted into rich, organic soil-enhancing compost.
These products are by no means difficult to recycle, the reason they are not being recycled in large numbers in some states such as Victoria is due to the lack of organics recycling infrastructure. This affects not only the effective recycling of compostable foodservice packaging, it also results in a significant amount of organic material ending up in landfill where it contributes to global warming. As it biodegrades in the oxygen-starved environment it produces toxic leachate and methane gas; a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than CO2.
In Australia we send 7 millions tons of organic waste to landfill. This material could easily be diverted and the embodied nutrients and energy could be reclaimed and reused instead of rotting in a landfill.
This is not futuristic thinking, this is actually happening in the USA and Europe. Australia has some infrastructure to support this, but needs more – and it needs a coordinated effort to empower the consumer in their disposal behaviour.
Some progressive states and councils have implemented green waste programs and offer significant grants in order to address this problem, yet others are choosing to simply ignore it and prefer to encourage landfilling by making landfill the cheapest disposal option for resources.
Some compostable packaging requires specific conditions to break down within a defined timeframe. This seems to concern some who believe that if it doesn't biodegrade in home compost then it’s simply greenwashing. Whilst home composting is a positive way to reduce our individual environmental impacts, the problem of organic waste ending up in landfill will never be solved by an increase in home composting alone. The reason being is that there is significantly more organic waste produced away from the home environment. In order to process 7 million tons of organic waste composting needs to be implemented on an industrial scale. Commercial composting ensures the rapid and efficient recycling of organic materials in large volumes.
Without consumer, business and most importantly government support the implementation of organic recycling in this country will continue at a snail's pace. We need to take note of how other countries, both developing and developed, are implementing laws and regulations to address the issue of single use plastic foodservice packaging. In France they have committed to banning all non-compostable foodservice packaging by 2020. In India they have done the same. The European Commission has highlighted the importance of decarbonising the plastics industry and are actively funding the development of compostable packaging and the associated compost infrastructure.
Regarding the position taken by the Australian Council of recycling asking companies to restrict the development and introduction of new and innovative materials, we agree the design of packaging needs to consider its fitness for purpose and end of life. But we also believe we need to design for the future and not get stuck behind the limitations of old waste management infrastructure. We all need to put our own interests aside and all parties need to come together to discuss securing our environmental future. Innovative materials are hardly a contributing factor to the dismally low rates of recycling in this country. Even the most readily recyclable materials such as PET that generates significant revenue for recycling companies is currently only achieving a 27% recycling rate.
Every material in use today can and should be recycled and reused, the reason why this is currently not the case is, if you take the position of the waste industry, then of course they want the cleanest purest resalable content. The lower your cost in processing and the better the output, the more you make. This is not a criticism. It is the reality of a commercialised waste industry that has shareholders looking for returns on investments (very large investments). Then there are potentially broader business interests, such as managing landfill sites or making product such as cardboard boxes from the recycled content. The broad problem for Australia to solve is balancing rightful commercial interests with environmental sustainability outcomes.
Plastics based on fossil resources are artificially cheap, and no one takes into account the cost of the environmental damage these materials cause. In addition to this, the Australian government subsidises the cost of extracting and producing fossil fuels by $7 billion annually. If we invested the same amount of money in developing an efficient recycling industry and subsidised the cost of recycled materials the balance would tip in favour of recycled materials.
Compostable packaging will replace conventional plastic packaging for foodservice applications. We cannot continue with the current status quo. The compost infrastructure in Australia will eventually meet the obvious demand and in the future, when we enjoy a delicious meal served in compostable packaging, we will look back and wonder why it took so long to solve such a simple problem.