Cutlery, takeaway boxes, sandwich boxes and single cups are just some of the items that plant-based compostable foodservice packaging company Vegware make. In fact, China is looking at alternatives to fossil fuel-based items like these to help solve the country’s throwaway plastic problem. Italy is already embracing compostable packaging as a sustainable material.
Business is good for Vegware (@vegware). The company is headquartered in the UK, but sells to around 70 countries across the world, including countries in Europe, the Middle East, the US, South America and the Caribbean.
Here, Bio Market Insights’ Liz Gyekye catches up with Vegware’s environmental and communications director, Lucy Frankel.
What will be your company’s main focus for 2020?
We work with local trade waste operators to help collect our client’s used Vegware and food waste for commercial composting. This is the big part of our innovation – working with the waste sector to increase the trade waste collections for our products.
We want to continue this work. So, one of our key focuses for next year will be to work together with the waste sector in order to help our products access suitable organics recycling.
In 2012, when our environmental team started forging links with the waste sector, compostable packaging was only accepted in commercial waste collections in 2% of UK postcode districts. Now, around 40% of UK postcodes have Vegware-approved trade waste collections. We are working very hard to increase this percentage further and we are also proud of the progress that we have made so far.
Elsewhere, we are also working hard to promote clear and concise labels on our products about how to recycle them. For example, we are trying to make this an instantly recognisable thing in order to clarify what bin our products should go in, for instance. In fact, our standard messaging for all our products states “commercially compostable where accepted”.
We try and help our clients with their composting initiatives when we can, and the “Green Leaf band” marking on our packaging plays a role in reducing contamination and ensuring waste is properly recycled.
The Green Leaf band, a stylised version of the Vegware logo, has a repeating leaf pattern that’s bold, striking, and easily identifiable as compostable.
Although we are based in the UK, we have clients all around the world and we sell to around 70 countries worldwide. It’s not just all about composting collections. We are also working together with the manufacturers of machines (e.g. onsite composting compliances). This can be good solutions for particular kinds of clients.
What are the biggest challenges facing the bioeconomy sector in regards to:
There are a lot of misunderstandings surrounding compostable packaging and prejudices against compostable packaging. In fact, there is a lot of noise within the industry. Pragmatically, you have to understand as a human being that some industries are growing fast at the detriment to other parts of the packaging industry. So, there are a lot of people who are seeing sales of traditional plastics decrease and they are hitting out at the materials that are taking that trade. We do see a lot of noise out there in the trade press and on LinkedIn with a lot of people lashing out. We also see people making various statements that are not necessarily backed up with facts. It’s frustrating, but it is also quite time consuming to counter assertions that are baseless. All in all, these assertions do take time to respond to. This is something experienced by people working with these novel materials.
The Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA) is great at countering spurious statements with calm facts and research. The BBIA is doing a fantastic job with collating all the research on compostable packaging with reports and papers on this subject. In essence, the BBIA is a wealth of resource.
All in all, one has to remember that it is a great thing to use renewable resources and move away from using finite materials. No matter what happens to the material at the end of use, you have to remember that there are sustainability benefits for not using something finite to create a product.
Renewable PLA that goes to incineration gives off fewer toxic gases than conventional plastics. Even if it doesn’t get to composting, there are still benefits to PLA being used and incinerated compared to conventional plastics being used and incinerated. It’s worth cutting through the noise and looking at a lot of scientific studies on compostable materials and seeing what the opportunities are.
There was a position paper that we put together for the UK’s ‘Resources and Waste Strategy’. We said we only think that compostable packaging is the best option in 5 to 8% of plastic packaging applications, for example.
Vegware will never make a water bottle because we know that PET is doing a good job there, especially in relation to recycling infrastructure. So, we are not going to get involved in that area because we know that PET is working for that application. However, this material does not work for food waste disposals when you have half a soup left in plastic-lined containers. That’s not got any quality recycling options. So, those are the type of applications that we are interested in. Compostables have a key role in the nexus between packaging and food, but we are not trying to be a solution to other applications.
We tend to have a very positive experience with our client base. There are a lot of people who are delighted to make the small changes to their procurement and to switch materials and to use Vegware or plant-based materials in their supply chains. There is a huge focus on this at the moment, especially in Europe and the US. We are seeing a huge shift from island nations as well. For example, places like the Seychelles have banned expanded polystyrene and the Caribbean is making similar changes as well. You have busy tourism economies in both places. You have hotels with lots of ‘food-to-go’ offered. Conventional materials that have limited waste options are causing big disruptions to their lives.
Elsewhere, the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive is a big direction of travel in Europe. In tandem with changing the materials, a lot of foodservice people are looking at reuse. We are seeing our clients using a mixture of reusable cups and using our foodservice items to serve meals. A lot of our clients are using a combination of reusable cups and compostable food containers. We are seeing a shift in the market with more of these businesses implementing those circular economy strategies.
How will Vegware respond to those challenges?
It can take up a lot of your time and day fighting incorrect statements about the compostable industry. You have to draw the line at where you can change somebody’s mind and where you are actually just wasting your own time. We have a ‘don’t feed the trolls’ policy. We never go out being negative about other people’s companies. So, we don’t pick fights. We just want to be positive about what we are doing to make sure that we can back it up. If people pick fights with us, we will only respond in a calm and concise way just to show the basis of what we are saying. We try and not get involved in ongoing spats. It’s not good for anyone’s cholesterol.
What one thing would you like the bio-based industry to do better and why?
It’s got to be down to legislation. A really great example is Italy. A few years ago, they made some major changes to their waste system. The Italian government mandated all supermarket shopping bags to be compostable. This system has worked absolutely beautifully because the government was really strict on how it got mandated and how it got the right message out. It’s a good legislation for people doing the right thing.
In Italy, they also have enormous food waste facilities where they have a really miniscule amount of contamination. In contrast, in the UK, for example, even dry, mixed recycling bins have large amounts of contamination (around 20-30%). It’s a common recycling stream that everybody uses, but basically misuses. I know that the UK is focusing on this through its Resources and Waste Strategy, but we could do better. Yet, there are changes coming that will help.