Compostables: (138,000) tonnes of potential

A new report examines the costs and benefits of compostable packaging for the UK market. David Burrows takes a closer look.

The Plastics in the Bioeconomy report published this month may well have passed you by. However, the 50-odd pages, compiled by Ricardo Energy & Environment for the Biomass Refinery Network, offered arguably the first detailed analysis of the UK market for compostable packaging, plus the environmental costs and benefits of these materials compared with traditional plastics (which is no simple task). Given that these materials have been praised and panned in almost equal measure, the research is timely. So, what are the takeaways?

FROM 8,000 TO 138,000 TONNES. About 8,000 tonnes of compostable packaging was placed on the market last year, making it a niche sector (there are 1.5m tonnes of consumer/retail packaging in all). That said, interest has rocketed. Sales at compostable packaging firm Vegware have reportedly grown by 50% in just 12 months, for example, with 500m of its compostable cups expected to be sold worldwide this year. And it’s just the start if Ricardo’s figures are anything to go by: “The UK could significantly increase the uptake of compostable packaging to between 90,100 and 138,000 tonnes per annum,” its experts predicted.

THE FLEXIBLE FRIEND. Most of this – 53,000 to 77,000 tonnes – will be in the so-called “flexibles” market, which is characterised by its “flexible form and ability to change shape” and includes, for example, sweet wrappers, fresh produce bags and the like. Compostables could also replace a further 9,000 to 11,000 tonnes of rigid conventional plastics (think cups or cartons). A number of alternatives are either already available or will be available soon to tempt foodservice operators: straws, cutlery and single-use containers such as cups and cartons, which are often contaminated with food.

FURTHER EXPANSION. Page 19 of the report is worth checking out because it shows the substitution potential of compostables across dozens of different packaging types, ranking them as green, amber or red. The ones categorised as green are already available or deemed easily achievable in the short term. Reds – mainly drinks containers or packaging for products requiring a longer shelf life – are not likely to be possible by 2025. The ambers are intriguing: they will probably be technically possible by 2025, but some offer “no clear justification for substitution”.

Ambers include coffee cup lids, sandwich wrappers and coffee pods, but the report doesn’t unpick which of these will be a good idea and which will not. It’ll be interesting to see if WRAP delivers this advice when it presents the research it has commissioned on compostables at an event in London next month.

BAGS OF POTENTIAL. Another huge area of compostable packaging growth is bags. Italy has phased in certified compostable bioplastic bags over the past few years, with 49,500 tonnes produced each year. The market here could have been just as big (the populations are quite similar), but we have the bag tax. Still, with food waste collections likely to become mandatory, if they’re used in kitchen caddies there’s a 7,500-tonne market right there. Another 2,600 tonnes could be used for fresh produce, and 18,000 tonnes for compostable carrier bags.

WHERE WILL IT ALL COME FROM? When it comes to arguing the pros and cons of compostables, land use is often hotly debated. So, will demand mean crops for compostables are in competition with those for food? No chance, according to Ricardo. It unpicks the potential natural resources available in some detail – mostly from waste in the system – and the bottom line is that even if the market were to grow to 138,000 tonnes there are “100 times” more bioresources available than would be needed.

A LOOK AT LIFE CYCLES. What happens to the materials – that is, how they are disposed of and the recycling or composting rates – will have a big bearing on their environmental benefits, of course. And those with a head for numbers will find the chapter that pits compostables against traditional plastic based on carbon impacts particularly interesting. At first, LDPE (low-density polyethylene, used in films, for example) beat its compostable cousin PLA (polylactic acid). But Ricardo played around with the inputs – including the energy used (making it specific to UK and Scotland grids), the levels of recycling and composting (respectively), and the amount of food contamination – and the results swung comfortably in favour of PLA.

It’s really useful stuff, offering a snapshot of just how difficult, but critical, it is to compare different packaging materials right through their life cycles.

THE COST OF COMPOSTABLES. Greater adoption of compostable packaging in place of hard-to-recycle or heavily contaminated plastic food packaging could boost the UK’s bioeconomy to the tune of £267m a year, with collections and processing costs falling. “Our analysis estimates a 12% lower net cost associated with recovery systems for biopolymer materials compared to virgin material recovery,” the report states. However, here is the rub: the costs of recovering either material are staggering, at £112 and £100 for every tonne of compostables or conventional polymers respectively.

REDUCING SINGLE-USE. Let’s not forget that businesses will soon be expected to foot the entire bill for waste management costs, under a new Extended Producer Responsibility scheme. So plan A has to be reducing single-use packaging – including compostables. There has been confusion over this (and the Ricardo report doesn’t really clear things up). A case in point was provided by Michael Gove recently: the DEFRA secretary said he’d committed to reducing his use of single-use plastic for Lent, but was then pulled up for drinking out of a plastic cup; he tweeted back that it was, however, a “compostable Vegware” one. But single-use is single-use, whatever the material. In the race to find “more sustainable” alternatives to plastic, this should not be forgotten.

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