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Expert view: Going around in circles with compostables.

In September 2018, the UK Parliament announced plans to switch to new compostable packaging. An in-vessel composting (IVC) method would use a combination of heat and microbes “to turn the waste into compost fit for any garden”. Almost a year later, and an investigation conducted by Footprint, found that none of it had actually been composted. The new plant-based cutlery, cups and lids, food containers and drinking straws had instead been incinerated. Of the 6.5 tonnes of packaging collected in dedicated bins, only 50% was compostable so the IVC wouldn’t take it.

In Scotland, we found a similar story – though this one went back much further. In 2011, the Scottish Parliament switched to fully compostable cups and lids for takeaway coffees after an in-house audit identified that much of its landfill waste was disposable coffee cups. Then in 2017, it also switched to cutlery and other packaging made from material that can be composted, with a preference for corn starch-based products. Again, there was positive media coverage, with a press release issued in February 2018 stating that the cutlery “looks and feels quite ordinary, but the signs in the café make clear that these won’t be going to landfill”. Well, they may not have ended up in landfill but, as far as we could determine, they didn’t get anywhere near a composting facility.

It took us (myself and co-writer Nick Hughes) weeks to track what was happening to all this compostable packaging. In Scotland, parliament’s press office stuck to the line that the compostables were “being sent to anaerobic digestion”. However, as those in this industry know, AD plant operators in the UK hate the stuff – especially the rigid packaging – so it may well be sent to AD but there are processes in place to ensure it doesn’t go near a digester (it’s separated and, most of the time, incinerated).

Whether this is better than, say, plastic-coated cups being burned is debatable (ditto, if they are landfilled). I also take on board the benefits of using renewable resources rather than more fossil fuels. Indeed, the fact this stuff wasn’t ending up at composting sites didn’t surprise me. What did, was the lack of responsibility for single-use packaging at the end-of-use stage: Scotland’s Parliament was basically saying it was someone else’s problem – in this case the waste collector, ChangeWorks.

“[Compostable packaging] is not a bad thing; it’s just not as good as people believe,” Ken McLean, operations director at Changeworks, told me. McLean was remarkably candid about the fate of the compostables (despite his fears of the negative headlines), and was keen to highlight that compostables were a small part of the estate’s waste. However, the dichotomy between people’s perception of compostables and the reality is exactly why we chased this story.

Look at public opinion and consumers have bought the “compostables are great” message hook, line and sinker. Research commissioned by The Grocer (which Nick and I were also involved with) showed that plant-based compostables now come second only to paper in the sustainability stakes. Compostable packaging manufacturer, Tipa, also published a poll in December that showed 70% of UK shoppers would be more likely to buy from a retail brand that uses compostable packaging; 39% thought retailers should use more of it. This kind of support is hard to ignore for businesses looking to jump on the so-called ‘plastic-free’ bandwagon (the fact compostables are plastic is a debate for another day).

Indeed, having turned their backs on compostables a few years ago, supermarkets are once again dipping their toes in the water. Foodservice outlets, meanwhile, have jumped in headfirst. Compostable packaging for cups, containers and cutlery is popping up everywhere as brands try to appease their customers and cash in on any positive anti-plastic PR. Vegware is one of those doing well out of all this: “Since MPs called for a 25p charge on plastic disposable cups and ministers announced a ban on plastic straws {Vegware] sales have rocketed, growing by more than 50% in a year to £31m,” the Guardian noted in April, with worldwide cup sales of 500m forecast for this year. Tipa’s cofounder Daphna Nissenbaum has also talked about “scaling up, expanding geographically and developing newer generations of packaging technology”. Compostables in the UK could increase from 8,000 tonnes today to 138,000 tonnes, according to Ricardo. But where will it all end up? And, crucially, do we really need it?

Piling more compostables onto the market could well stimulate investment in infrastructure to deal with it, but what if it doesn’t? Those with a vested interest in alternative plastics are all too keen to trot out the 9% recycling rate stat for plastic, yet they have no idea what percentage of their packaging is actually composted. Is this transparent, or responsible? We also need to sort out extended producer responsibility, collection systems, the plastic tax and all those other resource regulations the government is sitting (sorry, consulting) on.

But in all this we must not forget the end game: reduction – a concept those involved in foodservice packaging seem happy to ignore. Indeed, we discovered that UK Parliament is investing £68,000 a year to develop its own bespoke collection service for compostables – which will now end up at an IVC and in those gardens. That’s great news. However, here is the big story: sales of drinks in single-use compostable cups has plummeted from 58,000 to 15,000 a month following a 25p charge that has shifted behaviour so many bring their own cup or use a china mug. And there has been no negative impact on overall drinks sales.

David Burrows is a writer/researcher specialising in sustainable food systems. These are his own views. (DavidBurrowsWriter@gmail.com).

Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Bio Market Insights’ editorial team and management.


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