Are compostables better than oil-based plastic?

By Andrew Cross, founder and director of Earth Friendly Foodware


Compostable materials are increasingly popular. From magazine coverings to crisp packets to coffee cups, the promise of a single use item being returned to Mother Earth as organic compost is quite compelling isn’t it?

When compared to oil-based plastic, compostable products are a hands down winner. The bio-plastic PLA used to line coffee cups and formed into cups or containers is made using the same process as oil-based plastic but uses plants not finite fossil fuels.

Crystalise that PLA and you have a heat resistant material used for coffee cup lids and cutlery. The NatureFlex food bags/wrappings increasingly used in retail is made from wood cellulose. Good stuff!

Even better are the bagasse box alternatives to the polystyrene containers so popular with takeaways. Bagasse has a super story! Being made by crushing the sugarcane fibres left over after the sugar extraction process is complete puts bagasse streets ahead of its oil-based plastic counterparts. The same can be said for the mushroom based product packaging replacing Styrofoam or recycled cardboard replacing protective polystyrene blocks.

We even have an official accreditation that meets British standards known as Vincotte. You may know it as OK Compost. Two standards exist, home and commercial. You will see it proudly displayed on the magazine wrappings and increasingly on other products too. But this is where the challenge starts!

Just because a product is compostable, it does not mean that breaks down into compost if littered. It needs to be in a compost heap or composter! Sounds obvious but many assume because a product is compostable it just breaks down into compost regardless of where it ends up.

But it will break down into compost in landfill right? NO.

For the composting process to happen, you need water and oxygen along with carbon (leaves, wood, etc) and nitrogen (vegetables, fruit, plants). If a compostable product finds its beneath the surface of landfill it is highly unlikely that will be subject to the stuff it needs to compost. In 1995, a Chicago municipal dug out a landfill site and found hotdogs still intact from 20 years previously. The assumption that compostable products break down in landfill is just wrong although I will highlight that these products remain inert in landfill not releasing any nasties. How could they, they are made from plants?

So if we accept the scientific advice that our soils are in a poor state, why do we not have formal composting waste streams so we can help Mother Earth? The simple answer is BSE or Mad Cow Disease. Up until 31st July 2018, both Animal Health and the Environment Agency had banned the compostable products from entering green waste streams. The milk residue found on food/drink packaging was deemed a risk to UK health through the possible transmission of BSE. Strange but true! (Did you know that as a British citizen you cannot give blood in many countries for the exact same reason?)

So, with this roadblock removed those promoting composting waste streams are seeing progress. The largest manufacturer of compostable food and drink products, Vegware, launched its Composting Collective which offers a composting waste stream for their products. The service, as of April 2019, covers 38% of all UK postcodes. Quite an achievement in such a short space of time.

But there is greenwash and there are limits to what compostables can do. Because a product is certified compostable, this does not always mean they are made from plants. TIPA make award winning packaging that meets the Vincotte accreditation but is not 100% natural. They do not hide this fact and clearly state the % of non-bio materials used on their web site. Very clear and very honest. Oil- based plastic reducing but not oil-based plastic free.

Compostables made from plants have limitations with their use. For example, the boil in a bag foodstuffs used by our intrepid explorers cannot be produced, yet, in compostable materials. They will disintegrate when boiled so oil-based plastic wins that battle.

So the environmental top trumps played between compostables and oil-based plastic has a clear winner; compostables. Sustainable materials and a potential to end its life as compost. A clear win.

With all this said it must be noted that compostables are only a winner against oil-based plastic. They are not the “silver bullet” to fix all environmental packaging ills.

As guardians of this planet we must reduce our current consumption levels and learn that reuse is better than single use. Mother Earth cannot keep pace with our consumption of her natural resources. We must learn that her resources are beautiful not bountiful. And we must act now.

Andrew Cross, Earth Friendly Foodware

Andrew Cross is founder and director of Earth Friendly Foodware, supplying compostable materials to businesses.

He is a passionate campaigner and member of the Plastic Free Torridge steering group. He has been instrumental in the success of the Plastic Free Westward Ho! movement, and is a loyal member of the community, speaking up to protect the place he lives.

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