Plastics package: coffee pods, strawless lids and a bitter BBIA

This month we will mostly be confused by compostables and perplexed by plastics. By David Burrows.

For years there have been calls to ditch weight as a measurement for waste and use carbon instead. An analysis of Scotland’s rubbish showed that the five most carbon-intensive waste materials make up just 6% of waste by weight but nearly a third of associated carbon impacts (it’s worth noting that food was the worst offender, generating 17% of the country’s carbon impacts in 2015). But minutes seem set to become the metric of choice when talking about waste.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation started it: the charity’s report “The New Plastics Economy” in January 2016 estimated that “each year, at least eight million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean – which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute”. That one’s been used quite a bit since. But this month we stumbled across another one: every minute, between 13,500 and 29,000 coffee capsules are dumped in landfill.

The figure was produced by Halo, a company that launched “the world’s first compostable coffee capsule” in February 2017. “I genuinely think you shouldn’t be allowed to put coffee in plastic capsules,” said co-founder Richard Hardwick in an interview with Caffeine magazine at the time.

Since then a number of other compostable capsules have been brought to market, the latest of which came last week: Waitrose will be the first major retailer to sell own-label home compostable coffee pods from December 2018,” reads a press release on the supermarket’s website. Interesting, not least because one in three households have a coffee pod machine. But how many people have a home composter to put them in, we wonder? “I’m afraid I don’t know,” admits a company spokeswoman. But if they don’t have one, she adds, “they can put it in a food waste caddy that a number of local authorities collect”.

Is she sure? Yes. “I have double-checked.” In one sense she’s correct – they can go in food waste collections destined for anaerobic digestion (AD). Whether they will make it into the digester is another matter. Have a look at what this AD operator told Caffeine: “I’m sure that those creating biodegradable packaging are very well intentioned and if you had asked me my opinion a decade ago I would have said what a marvellous thing it was. However, actually finding a home for all biodegradable packaging presents a number of challenges that make many AD and composting operators nervous about taking them.”

Most operators will sift out all packaging because they don’t know what’s plastic and what’s compostable. A spokesman for the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association told us: “Essentially, the point is that digesters can take compostable items but they are not particularly helpful as they don't contain organic material that can be used to produce biogas or digestate biofertiliser.”

Some have met with similar noises from composting sites reluctant to take compostable packaging, so what’s going on? Here’s David Newman from the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA): “By using compostable materials we are pushing for the right infrastructure to treat them and to collect them. It will take time, but we know they can be effectively recycled through composting when and if they arrive there.” Just last week, Vegware announced that it’s got the go-ahead for its cups and lids to be treated at garden waste composting facilities. “We expect that soon, UK householders and businesses in many regions will be able to put our compostable cups and lids in their garden waste bins,” the company said.

Other retailers, meanwhile, have just decided not to get involved in compostables at all. Tesco reportedly told its suppliers that all packaging unsuitable for recycling will be banned from next year, including industrial compostable materials and polylactic acid (PLA). Other products on the list include PVC, oxo-degradable materials, water-soluble bioplastics and polystyrene (in a poll in July, 91% of Footprint readers supported a polystyrene ban).

Tesco isn’t convinced there’s the infrastructure in place to take compostables. Norman, as he is increasingly prone to do, got out his laptop and wrote to the Tesco boss, Dave Lewis, to convince him otherwise. Sure, the infrastructure isn’t up to scratch yet when it comes to compostables, he wrote (19 of the 53 industrial compost plants take rigid compostable materials), but that’s partly because food waste collections only happen at 40% of households in England. And don’t forget, he added, that despite the huge investment in plastic recycling infrastructure in the past 25 years, only 9% of plastic packaging will get recycled; the rest is landfilled, burned or littered.

BBIA member Novamont has steered clear of any stone-throwing in the media (despite plastic firms upping the anti-compostable rhetoric). However, on a recent press trip to one of the company’s sites in Italy, the firm’s marketing manager, Christian Garaffa, told us that “packaging isn’t becoming more recyclable, it’s going the other way – it’s smaller and more complex”. People aren’t stupid, either, he suggested: “They are becoming aware that food packaging is not recyclable or being recycled.”

A couple of reports in the past month suggest he has a point. The National Audit Office cast doubt on the rigour applied to the UK’s approach to calculating packaging recycling rates. DEFRA was singled out for criticism due to the department’s failure to account for the risk of undetected fraud and error in data that estimates the UK has exceeded its overall packaging recycling target every year since 1997 and recycled 64% of packaging in 2017 against a target of 55%. The system “appears to have evolved into a comfortable way for government to meet targets without facing up to the underlying recycling issues”, the NAO said. Well, if you’re a government that doesn’t like targets, then why not make any you do have easy to hit …

Meanwhile, Which? published research showing that people may well be confused about compostables, but they’re also perplexed about what to do with their plastics. A poll of 2,155 consumers found that 48% thought the “green dot” (two green arrows joined in a circle) meant something could be recycled; in fact, it just means that the company has paid into a scheme that supports recycling and use of sustainable materials. Almost three-quarters (73%) knew the Mobius Loop (three arrows looped into a triangle) showing a material can be recycled.

Which? has also assessed supermarket packaging, showing that 29% is either non-recyclable or “difficult to recycle”. Iceland – that pioneer of plastic-free policies – had the most unrecyclable material (22.42%), closely followed by Lidl (22.04%) and Ocado (18.35%). At the other end of the table were Morrisons (12.08%), Asda (14.05%) and Marks and Spencer (14.15%).

In other news, Starbucks (global) and Ikea UK & Ireland have announced plastic straw bans by 2020 and October 1st 2018 respectively. The former has developed a “strawless lid”, but will also be “offering straws made from alternative materials – including paper or compostable plastic” for its frappuccino blended beverages, available “by request for customers who prefer or need a straw”. They might want to speak to a few of the UK pub chains before they start ordering all this new plastic-free stock.

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