Paper and compostables are “pretend” solutions to single-use

Food companies are investing in “risky” new packaging solutions and recycling technologies instead of prioritising refill and reuse systems, according to Greenpeace.

“Companies have obscured the true impacts of packaging behind confusing marketing terms, sustainability language, and industry alliances, hoping that consumers will continue to believe the false promise that plastic can be improved,” noted the campaign group in a new report. “These misleading claims that a product is compostable, biodegradable, or made from plants, does not mean that product is good for the environment or will reduce plastic pollution.”

The report – Throwing away the future: how companies still have it wrong on plastic pollution solutions – focuses on switching from plastic to other single-use materials, as well as emerging waste management technologies.

Two chapters are dedicated to switching to paper and bioplastics. Paper and compostable packaging are seen as the most environmentally and socially sound solutions currently available, according to a public survey by The Grocer, published earlier this year.

Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and Nestlé are among a number of multinational companies to have announced switches from plastic to paper packaging. These changes are “problematic”, said Greenpeace, given that “current paper recycling is unable to provide a sustainable route for an increase in paper packaging”.

The impact on natural resources also merits further consideration.

“There is no way the planet can sustain additional demand from companies attempting to substitute their single-use plastic packaging with paper or cardboard,” the authors wrote.

There is also severe criticism of bioplastics, including compostables. The lack of infrastructure to treat this type of packaging means it is “most likely to be landfilled or incinerated, making it little different to conventional single-use plastic”.

This issue has been highlighted by previous investigations conducted by Footprint. Some catering firms are still being obligated to switch to compostable packaging, despite the lack of collection and treatment infrastructure. “Too much time, energy and money is being spent searching for alternatives to single-use plastic,” a recent Footprint Intelligence report, in association with BaxterStorey, concluded.

Emerging technologies, such as bio-based packaging made from non-agricultural crops like algae, methane and seaweed, also need “transparent assessments on a range of impacts”, according to Greenpeace. “… a highly precautionary approach to industrially-processed bio-based plastic packaging should be taken.”

The Plant-Based Products Council, based in the US, said the Greenpeace narrative “rightly points out the many issues we face in dealing with fossil-fuel-derived traditional plastics”, but the report’s authors have “decided to pre-emptively dismiss bio-based plastics as a viable alternative, while misleading readers on their merits”.

The PBPC has unpicked each of the claims made by Greenpeace in a short graphic.

David Newman, managing director at the Bio-Based and Biodegradables Industry Association told Footprint that it was “difficult to argue” with Greenpeace’s stance against useless packaging. However, he dismissed the accusation that bioplastics were just a marketing ploy. “I and BBIA members don't do greenwashing.”

In the UK, Wrap is working on an assessment of the potential for compostable packaging. Recommendations were expected in the summer but publication appears to have been delayed.

Chemical recycling – which Tesco recently hailed as possibly the “final piece of the jigsaw for the UK plastics recycling industry” – is a “false solution”, said Greenpeace, with “limited evidence that [the options available] are environmentally safe or efficient at transitioning to a low-carbon economy”.

Consumers must be sceptical of all these “so-called solutions”, Greenpeace warned. “We will only see real change when companies like Nestlé, Unilever, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo, which profit from single-use models, end their expanding plastic use and invest heavily in systems that prioritise reuse.”

However, there is an argument that food companies are only switching to please the public and meet new regulations.

2 Responses

  1. A well balanced article outlining conflicting views. Look forward to the follow up articles on this. Definitely a vast amount of “greenwashing” creeping in everywhere.

  2. As we are facing a climate crisis and risk to reach temperature increase of + 3,2°C I’m afraid we do have to sacrifice convenience and stop resource consumption. Let’s keep to here and now where the vision of regenerative economy using agricultural waste hasn’t arrived yet. As a matter of fact we are using in Italy compostable bioplastics (made by 60% fossil sourced and 40% biobased as materBi bags) and tableware made by biobased PLA. Producing 1 ton of it it requires about 11,3 tons of sugar cane or 9,2 sugar beet. (Bioplymers facts & statistics 2016). Moreover our composting plants are not equipped to handle these materials that are disposed of. Therefore let’s first build closed loops which are “fully restorative by design and intention”. Until then much better to explore other circular models based on reuse and product as a service like CupClub or ReCircle in Germany and Switzerland.