Blog: Compostable packaging, its role in the UK and the need for better supply chain alignment

SUEZ recycling and recovery UK’s Dr. Adam Read and CIWM’s Helen Chaplin reflect on some of the key points raised in the latest on-line discussion about compostable packaging, the fourth instalment in the CIWM and Suez webinar series, which saw the expert panel explore the role that compostable packaging may play in society the near future and how we may must adapt to effectively manage these types of new materials in our waste streams.

The application and design of compostable packaging is important

With over 200 delegates in attendance, the use of polls again proved a great way to keep audience engagement and to see what the sector’s opinions are on a number of key issues. The results of the first poll showed that the majority of the audience was in favour of compostable packaging becoming more prevalent in the UK, recognising the potential benefits of these materials over other plastics that are currently not being recycled.

However, as the results of our second poll pointed out, the audience saw compostable packaging as both a problem and an opportunity . Therefore, their application and design needs to be considered carefully to ensure they become an effective part of value chain and not an increasing contaminant in a system that wasn’t designed with them in mind.

All of the panellists agreed that the appropriate application of compostable packaging was important, and that there are specific uses where they could be adopted easily for example cucumber wrapping, tea bags, coffee pods and fruit labels. This is because these items are highly likely to enter the organic waste stream anyway, so making them compostable will simply help ensure they go from contaminant to resource. Iain Ferguson (Environment Manager, Co-Op) also pointed out how certain applications of all packaging (including compostable) can help reduce food waste which in terms of carbon is an important consideration, so if we can use compostable packaging where it is easily captured by the right recycling system then even better.

However, there are also certain circumstances where it simply doesn’t make sense to use compostable packaging because the materials they would replace are already achieving a high degree of circularity in their life cycle – items such a plastic bottles for example. Iain expressed concern that we ‘shouldn’t interfere with established recycling systems’ which other panellists agreed with.

The debate progressed swiftly to considering why compostable packaging shouldn’t simply be considered the solution to an existing problem packaging. As Helen Bird (Strategic Engagement Manager, WRAP) stated, ‘it is important to consider whether it is possible to reduce the amount of packaging being used in the first place, before introducing compostable packaging to the product and market’.

The results of our third poll clearly showed that the audience was in favour of the government dictating where compostable packaging is and isn’t used. Tony Breton (Marketing Specialist, Novamont UK & Ireland) agreed that ‘the industry could do with some dictation, and suggested that this would help speed up the collection and new treatment infrastructure required’.

Labelling is critical to compostable packaging success

One of the main issues with compostable packaging at present is the unclear and confusing labelling, but Helen pointed out that ‘labelling is difficult to do’. At the Co-Op, Iain introduced a ‘caddy liner that is used to carry shopping home which has recently updated its labelling as consumers still weren’t understanding what to do with the bags once they got home’.

The panellists also strongly believed that better labelling could help sort out the confusion between biodegradable and compostable packaging, which would make consumers lives easier when deciding which bin, bag or box to put them in.

Another issue that will need to be considered as compostable packaging becomes more prevalent is that of accepted standards and certification. Emily Nicols (Technical Manager, REA) suggested this would help to back up any claims being made by manufacturers of biodegradable or compostable. Tony relayed the case study of Italy introducing a certification and labelling scheme for compost and compostable products in great detail and how this hand with clear Government policy in favour of compostable packaging for food contact use overnight transformed the uptake and effective treatment of these materials.

Emily also suggested that there is already a need for ‘which bin?’ disposal guidance for households and businesses and that sufficient funding for local authorities to guide, instruct and educate householders will be key, but there was less agreement from the panel on where this funding would come from, perhaps the new Extended Producer Responsibility regulations?

The supply chain needs to be integrated

The most compelling of messages coming from al panellists was that the collection, processing systems and infrastructure have all got to be in place and designed to work together to be able to handle any new packaging materials coming onto the market, and compostables are no different. It’s not enough to say ‘it’s designed to be recycled or composted’ if it doesn’t get collected or sorted. As Helen stated, “otherwise it’s greenwash!”

Furthermore, Helen emphasised that just because something is compostable, doesn’t mean it should enter the natural environment as ultimately ‘this is still littering’, and the materials might not break down without certain industrial conditions, resulting in a new pollutant in our water courses etc.

There is currently a lot of contamination in the output from anaerobic digestion (AD), because of the poor quality of some of the feedstocks received, whether it be plastic bottle tops and plastic bags from consumers or industrial food collected in polythene bags. These bags leave fragments even when they are shredded and removed at the front end of the AD plant and if not addressed will result in microplastic pollution being spread to land and other destinations. So introducing any compostable material must be done with caution and with the end market and end destination in mind, as well as the ability of the treatment systems to cope with this change in material.

The audience indicated in the poll that 2-4yrs was a realistic time frame to realise the opportunity that compostable packaging presents, which would allow new policies, labelling and capture systems to be developed properly and in a unified way. Helen suggested that ‘EPR is going to be a big influencer over the time scale, as it is likely to be where the funding comes from’ for any significant changes in collection and reprocessing. Tony explained how Italy switched to compostable fruit and vegetable bags almost overnight, and doesn’t understand why the UK can’t do the same. However, he stressed ‘the obvious need to have the disposal system in place first’ ensuring decent quality food waste collections and quality outputs going back to land.

Innovation shouldn’t be stifled

However, all the debate about policy reform and Government direction did raise some concerns about this restricting future innovation. As Helen stated, ‘if you ban materials before they are developed, then they will never develop’ and this might not be in the interests of consumers or the environment. She concluded that ‘it is important to hedge your bets with regards to where there are likely to be opportunities, and not put all your eggs in one basket’.

As Iain echoed, ‘bans are blunt instruments that can lead to unintended consequences’. And this is why careful consideration about future application of compostable materials and the policies that surround them is so critical. Iain also mentioned that ‘sometimes, difficult to recycle materials are required to make other materials easy to recycle, for example film lids on plastic tubs’. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet!

Collaboration is key

Finally, and as we’ve heard from other webinars in the series, collaboration is required throughout the supply chain if we are to address the problems of compostables and realise their potential. Producers must ensure they design packaging with one eye on its end destination (how it will be processed), and make sure there are appropriate disposal routes in place before bringing new materials to the market. This should be a requirement under new EPR reforms. As Emily stated ‘the sector needs to encourage further collaboration and open dialog when planning new waste collection systems’ so we can capture materials in a way that means they can be processed properly.

In the final poll, the audience were asked to decide what they think needs to change to make compostable packaging more mainstream. The two dominant themes were clear government policy and clear standards and labelling. Tony agreed with this suggesting that ‘direction from the government would help to bring investment to manufacturing in the UK’.

In conclusion…

At the end of what was a very informative and interactive session, with more than fifty questions being submitted by the audience during the hour, it was concluded that there is a role for compostable packaging in the UK however it’s not going to be a silver bullet solution to plastic pollution.

The panellists confirmed that only a combination of factors driven by central government policy will help to the move the compostable packaging agenda forward. We have to use the right materials in the right way, so they can be handled correctly and with strong end market demand, and then we will get the right investment. Tony suggested that we need an economic system to drive up the value and quality of the output products in the short term, something that was supported by the other panellists, whilst addressing the live concern of contamination of the materials at the collection point.

Labelling is going to be key to address the issues around compostable packaging, something that we know Governments are looking at along with organisations operating in the organics sector and OPRL. So have your say in the forthcoming government consultations. Compostable packaging is here to stay, so let’s work together to co-design the whole system now, before it is too late!

We would like to thank the panellists for their time, insight and honesty, and all of the delegates for their participation in the polls and for asking so many excellent questions.

To watch the recording of the webinar follow this link here. To register for the remaining webinars in this CIWM and SUEZ series click here, and we look forward to receiving your questions on the online sessions in the coming weeks. If you are a CIWM member, you can also discuss this topic and other current issues on Connect where the panellists and chairs are ready to engage on these and many other hot topics.

Written by: Dr Adam Read (External Affairs Director, Suez recycling and recovery UK) and Helen Chaplin (Technical Development Executive, CIWM).

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