Comment: The case for compostables

Responding to a recent Footprint story on the problems with compostable packaging, David Newman, of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association, argues that it has an important role to play.

Footprint does a great job of exposing flaws in our food, packaging and waste systems. Last month it targeted compostable packaging, but I think some of the comments were unfair and I want to correct the balance.

When we see that compostable packaging – even in well-run, closed-loop facilities like the Scottish and UK parliaments – is ending up incinerated, it is enough to make my blood boil. It shows opponents of compostables they are a waste of time and we should continue to use plastic materials (that is, those that should be recycled, but rarely are), while people like me who think compostables have a role to play are left disappointed because they are not playing it and valuable resources are being burnt.

There are a few essential points I need to make.

First, compostables can play a role in getting packaging that is contaminated with food and drink to composting, where such materials can be recycled and sent back to soil, to replenish its organic carbon and help raise the quantity and quality of that organic carbon. We are losing around 3m tonnes a year of topsoil in the UK to erosion, while food waste is our largest domestic waste stream – we should be doing whatever we can to collect it, treat it and send it to soil cleanly. Compostable packaging can help do this.

At the same time, as a lot of food packaging is film and contaminated with food it is very difficult and expensive to recycle mechanically. Hardly any plastic film – maybe 4% – is recycled in the UK, so it is not a huge leap in our imagination to say “let’s make the packaging compatible with food waste treatment too”, and by this I mean anaerobic digestion (AD) and in-vessel composting (IVC). Indeed, the report Plastics in the Bioeconomy scoped the market for compostables, which is potentially around 5% of plastic packaging but 25% of films – small percentages, but these are key to getting food waste cleanly to soil as valuable nutrients. And where cups and lids are concerned, we can take those to open windrow composting, of which more than 150 plants exist in the UK.

The barriers to achieving this are:

(a) Poor collection schemes leading to cross-contamination, both of compostables from other materials (as in the case of both parliaments despite being collected separately) and of compostables into other materials (which is less likely if they are collected separately).

(b) AD plants will strip them out. Yes, they strip out everything at huge cost to AD operators – and there is a case here for cooperating and stripping out the compostables to send to composting. Provided they are not contaminated, composting costs far less than incineration, making savings for the AD plants.

The whole system is a mess. The UK waste management infrastructure is out of date and its collection systems are fragmented, hard to understand and impossible to communicate to citizens, plus it is hugely underfunded. It also exports vast volumes of waste all over the world: some 3m tonnes of refuse-derived fuel get burnt in Europe annually; some 600,000 tonnes of plastics get shipped for apparent recycling elsewhere, including to developing countries where we now know little is recycled but much is dumped; electrical waste is shipped from the UK to developing countries; while recent reports on low-grade paper waste being shipped to non-EU countries shows just how broken our system is.

Is it therefore any wonder that compostables are not collected properly? We have had decades to get used to the other materials, and are still making a mess of it. Compostables are here, now, so we’re likely to take time to get used to them too.

We need a long-term vision and plan, which is what DEFRA’s resources and waste strategy will create hopefully. We need to understand where we want to be in 2030 because this is how long it will take before the investments, plants and collection systems fully mature. From 2024 we will have obligatory food waste collections nationwide. But moving the waste industry takes time: they have investments to amortise, they need time to plan, authorise and develop new sites, and they need long-term guarantees on feedstock. Moving the waste giants is far from easy.

In such a vision, compostables play a role, but we need: accurate and harmonised collection systems to get them to food waste treatment; continuous citizen information on what goes where to avoid cross-contamination from all materials; to reduce the non-recyclable fraction of packaging carrying food; to improve the quality and quantity of food waste being recycled for energy and nutrients, with AD and composting working together as they do in other EU countries; and (we almost forgot) to reduce GHG emissions by substituting some fossil fuel plastics with bio-based materials.

Indeed, everything is connected: climate change, packaging, food waste, nutrients and soil quality.

David Newman is managing director at the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association.

 

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