Are compostables really a greener solution?

Widely seen as the greenest choice, much is misunderstood about compostable packaging. Having it work together with a robust recycling programme, however, could be the key to a more sustainable future
Compostable vs recycling

As communities and enterprises around the world consider how to package products sustainably, the recyclables versus compostables debate has gathered considerable attention. Traditionally viewed as competitors, these solutions to our addiction to plastics are actually running in different races.

While a common misconception of compostable packaging is that it is biodegradable in natural conditions, the majority of these solutions must be broken down under particular industrial conditions, which means dreams of waste in the environment breaking down like organic material are far from reality.

Instead, the two sustainable packaging solutions have considerable potential as partners in the fight against environmental pollution, although their interaction at a domestic level poses challenges.

Understanding compostable products

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a dire, but effective, representation of where our discarded plastics can end up. The hulking flotilla of man-made detritus is a damning indictment of the modern world’s disregard for the environment, as well as a sobering example of the levels of waste that have entered ecosystems worldwide.

It is tempting to hear of compostable packaging and hope that, in future, such materials will simply rot away rather than linger for centuries in the natural world.

Sadly, this is not the case, with packaging leader Amcor stating emphatically: “Compostable or biodegradable packaging is absolutely not a solution to litter and marine pollution; if these materials end up in nature, they often do not degrade and cause the same problems as conventional plastics.”

Most compostable or biodegradable packaging, such as that derived from polylactic acid, requires particular industrial techniques to decompose effectively. Not only that, but compostables can often leave toxic residue behind, as well as releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as they degrade.

Compostable or biodegradable packaging is absolutely not a solution to litter and marine pollution

Such materials are effective as part of the infrastructure of a collection and processing system. Working alongside traditional recycling methods, compostable packaging can facilitate the decomposition of food waste and tackle the challenge of food-tarnished materials being largely unrecyclable.

In other words, to strive to be victorious in the compostables versus recyclables debate is to miss the point as together they can increase the rate at which packaging solutions are circularised.

Rather than accept that the majority of food sachets or coffee pods cannot be dealt with in an environmentally friendly way, simply because food residue impacts the recycling process, leveraging compostables for these products would mean they too can be processed without entering the environment.

Integrating compostables into domestic life

Infrastructure is crucial to enabling the effective rollout of domestic, compostable packaging solutions. Such materials cannot be processed with traditional recyclables and depositing compostables in recycling bins only exacerbates the longstanding issue of inappropriate materials entering recycling systems.

“There is a distinct possibility that compostable materials could contaminate other recycling streams,” says Gladys Naylor, group head of sustainable development at Mondi. “We need to find a way to overcome this challenge by either improving the waste stream sorting technology to collect compostable packaging in the same stream and avoid contamination of other waste for recyclability, or design materials that can be composted, but do not contaminate the recycling stream.”

So the contention of compostables versus recyclables takes on greater meaning as they cannot coexist within existing recycling systems.

Adding another element to domestic waste management processes tends to confuse an already poorly understood system. The State of Plastic Recycling 2020 report from multipacking systems supplier Hi-Cone found as many as 66 per cent of adults in the UK are unsure of how to recycle certain plastics. Education is of paramount importance as, without a populace that understands the necessity of effective domestic waste management, or indeed the mechanisms behind it, installed infrastructure will never be as effective as it ought to be.

In short, compostables provide some solutions to the challenges faced by recyclables, but they are not a panacea for waste pollution. “Eliminating plastic packaging would eliminate the benefits it has over alternative materials when considering their environmental impact during material extraction, production and use,” says Jennifer Perr, sustainability director at Hi-Cone.

“Building a circular economy for plastics, ensuring plastic packaging never becomes waste and educating the public on the true cost of consumption of different materials, would be a major step in the right direction.”

The challenges of recyclable materials

Frustration for environmental groups and companies endeavouring to deliver recyclable packaging, is rooted in the infrastructural challenges and limited awareness surrounding recycling practice. Plastics are complex and the infrastructure required for comprehensive recycling is a challenge to deliver for all consumers, particularly while those same consumers are often confused about what can be recycled and where.

Aside from devising packaging solutions that use less material, recyclable solutions are widely considered the most impactful means of curbing plastic waste entering the environment. A fact of the compostables versus recyclables debate is that plastics, in particular, are a problem we cannot do without.

While biodegradable solutions can replace some plastic packaging, anything requiring structural soundness, protection from moisture, or rigorous isolation from other products or atmospheric changes is still best placed in recyclable plastic packaging. Foodstuffs and medicines are particular examples where plastics are necessary, with plastic food packaging often being responsible for issues in the recycling process.

Achieving circularity with sustainable packaging

Initiatives led by the likes of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) have been driving the circular economy: a model proposing that all products in the value cycle are not only reusable or recyclable, but the required infrastructure becomes a core focus for government spending and enterprise strategies.

The benefits of a circular economy speak for themselves; if we can use existing plastics as material for all new plastics, we can minimise the amount of new materials that must be processed, the energy required, the carbon dioxide emissions released and the global volume of plastics produced.

Of course, recycling is a notoriously challenging endeavour. Not all plastics can be recycled and those plastics are so widespread within the packaging industry that their unilateral phasing-out would take some time. The infrastructure for recycling, including collections from homes and public spaces, is also not yet universally available. It is no wonder that global estimates from the EMF place recycling rates at just 14 per cent as recently as 2016.

Although there has been some movement towards realising the ambitions of a circular economy, the fact remains that the vast majority of all packaging is still being sent to landfill or for incineration, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere or finding its way into the environment and ecosystems.

While viewing the dynamic as an oppositional compostables versus recyclables paradigm is outdated, considerable progress must be made with both sustainable packaging solutions before they realise their true potential.