Plastic, plastic, plastic… My fridge and kitchen cupboards are full of it! It seems almost impossible to buy food which isn’t encased in some kind of plastic packaging.
Fortunately, we’re now seeing a gradual shift to planet friendly, compostable packaging.
While it’s a big green tick, for many of us it’s unclear how to responsibly dispose of compostable packaging materials.
Can we toss them in the recycling bin? Should we be cultivating our own compost heap at home? Or, does compostable packaging need to go to a special processing plant?
Let’s get this confusion cleaned up.
Why Do We Need so Much Packaging Anyway?
Carrying liquids home from the supermarket without a plastic container would be tricky. Plastic packaging is also a hygienic means of protecting and transporting foods.
The trouble is, the convenience afforded by disposable plastic comes at a high cost for the environment.
We need some level of packaging, so how can compostable packaging help the planet?
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What Exactly Does ‘Compostable’ Mean?
Compostable materials are able to break down into a natural or organic state when placed in a ‘composting environment’. This means a home compost heap or an industrial composting facility. It doesn’t mean a normal recycling facility, which cannot compost.
The process of composting can take weeks, months or years, depending on the conditions. Optimal heat, moisture and oxygen levels are all regulated.
Compostable materials leave no toxic substances or pollutants in the soil when they break down. In fact, the compost produced can be used in the same way as soil or plant fertiliser.
There is a difference between biodegradable packaging and compostable packaging. Biodegradable simply means a material breaks down into the ground.
Compostable materials also break down, but they add nutrients to the soil too, which enriches it.
Compostable materials also disintegrate at a naturally faster rate. According to EU law, all certified compostable packaging is, by default, biodegradable. In contrast, not all biodegradable products can be considered compostable.
Home Compost vs Industrial Compost
What’s the difference between home composting, and letting the professionals do it?
Composting at home is one of the most effective and environmentally-responsible methods of getting rid of waste. Home composting is low maintenance; all you need is a compost bin and a little bit of garden space.
Vegetable scraps, fruit peels, grass cuttings, cardboard, eggshells, ground coffee and loose tea. They can all be put into your compost bin, along with compostable packaging. You can add your pet’s waste too.
Home composting is usually slower than commercial, or industrial, composting. At home, it can take a few months to two years depending on the contents of the pile and composting conditions.
Once fully composted, you can use it on your garden to enrich the soil.
Specialised plants are designed to deal with large-scale compostable waste. Items which would take a long time to decompose on a home compost heap decompose much quicker in a commercial setting.
At an industrial composting facility, compostable waste is separated into two piles. They’re known as feedstock piles and are composted in one of two ways:
- Windrow Composting requires machines to turn the feedstock, thereby allowing aeration to occur.
- Aerated Static Composting relies on underground fans. These fans push air through the feedstock pile, whilst using machines to turn it.
During both methods, the carbon-nitrogen level, temperature, water and oxygen level are controlled. This enables microbes to flourish and break down the feedstock piles faster.
At the end of the process, the remaining compost is checked for quality. It can then be reused as soil or as a plant fertiliser.
The Barriers to Large-Scale Industrial Composting Facilities
Compostable or biodegradable packaging is still in the minority. Which at the moment, suits most UK recycling plants, as they’re not equipped to deal with these materials. (Note we said recycling plants, not composting plants, who are equipped.) As consumers, we can struggle to understand which bin to put them in, too. We have enough bins to deal with already!
This means that much of the compostable packaging we put into our recycling or regular waste bins is still incinerated or sent to landfill. (Compostable materials will still break down in landfill. It just takes substantially longer than it would in a specialised compost facility. Plus, they won’t then be separated and used as fertiliser.)
The future does look bright for industrial compost though. Vegware, who produce compostable cups and dinnerware, already offer a compost collection service. It’s called Close the Loop and is available in most of Scotland and areas of Southwest England.
Similarly, Veolia has set up five Open Windrow Compost Plants across the UK for commercial-scale compost. They offer businesses the chance to responsibly dispose of coffee cups, food waste and other compostable goods.
Brands Worth Getting Behind
When it comes to compostable packaging some brands are already a step ahead of the rest. UK companies such as Teapigs and Snact are paving the way for more responsible packaging.
Teapigs have already been awarded the Plastic-Free Trust Trademark from A Plastic Planet. The company provide us with guilt-free tea bags which are 100% free from plastic. They’re compostable and biodegradable and come in recyclable / reusable cartons and tins.
Meanwhile, the co-founders of Snact favour sustainability over profit. They already reduce food waste with their fruit jerky and banana bars made from surplus fruit. They’ve also switched from plastic packaging to fully-compostable, food-safe TIPA packaging.
Compostable materials are usually more expensive to produce than mass-produced non-degradable plastics. But environmentally conscious companies like these take on the extra costs so that you and I don’t have to.
Let’s Take Responsibility for Our Own Compostable Packaging Waste
40% of UK households are home composters or have access to a shared compost heap or kerbside food waste collection.
The environmental benefits of home composting are huge. How many more of us could consider creating a garden compost heap?
Even if you don’t have your own back garden, you can ensure that your compostable rubbish ends up where it should be. Start by checking out the green waste collection services offered by your local council.
If your council provides a food waste collection service, small amounts of compostable packaging can be added to your food waste bin.
Why not go that little bit further and set up a communal compost heap with your neighbours? Or organise a collection at the local school? You could also find your nearest zero waste store and avoid packaging altogether!
Until recycling plants catch up, it’s up to us to support the companies providing compostable packaging. We can aim to dispose of these innovative new materials in the greenest way possible.