Why we need to be clear about biodegradables and compostables

by Avril Sainsbury BA Hons  Ei8ht Design & Cleaner Seas Project

 

Why we must be clear about biodegradable & compostables

With my Cleaner Seas Project hat on and with a keen interest in recycling/waste management and having previously worked in Brands packaging, one of the issues that I deal with for the Cleaner Seas Project and lately A Greener Bude is biodegradables/compostables.

There is much confusion about biodegradables at a time when small to large businesses and consumers are looking for a sustainable, viable alternative to plastic.  There is potential in our desperation to find these solutions that we opt for alternatives that we believe to be better for our environment, when in actual fact we know little about them or how they will be recovered. 

Could we be, in our attempts to find an alternative to oil based plastics, adding to the confusion and pollution?

 

The Problem

Currently there are no international or national standards in place for home composting.   "Home composting" falls under the "Industrial Composting" standard (see EN 13432 Standard below)

Requirements of the EN 13432 standard

Why is this a problem?

Currently companies selling their products in biodegradable packaging can claim that their products are "compostable" or home compostable even though there is no existing standard for this.  Many products that are listed as "home compostable" or "compostable" must be recovered via industrial composting or the plant based polymer it is made from could exist in our environment for a long time.  

For example

Snact claim that their products are home compostable.   Crisp packets (Walkers Crisps alone produce 10,000,000 a day) are non recyclable so to be told a company offer a solution with fully home compostable snack packets is music to my ears.  After a little searching and questioning I am told by Snact that their products are made from a plant based polymer.  After further questioning I am told it is fully home compostable.  This is contrary to what I currently know about plant based polymers.

Snact Claim on their website that their products are indeed fully home compostable.   BBC online news has applauded Snact for this remarkable packaging that looks like plastic but is fully home compostable.  

 

Please note that I have used Snact as an example because we have recently connected on Twitter, but there are many companies providing plant based polymers as an alternative to oil based plastics.

Snact Packaging
IMG_6910.jpg

 

Tipa products are compounds and films that comply with EU 13432 (shown above) and ASTM D6400 standards and are certified for both home and industrial composting through the OK Compost mark by the Vincotte Institute.

ASTM D6400 - 12
VINCOTTE certification

 

Tipa describe Snact packets as Certified as compostable in industrial conditions EN13432 on their website.

 

Tipa refer to Snact packets as certified as compostable in industrial conditions EN13432
Tipa website, Snact in industrial composting conditions biodegrading

Snact do acknowledge on their website that industrial composting facilities where temperatures are approximately 50 to 60°C differ from that of  home composting which has lower temperatures and is less constant than an industrial composter and so is usually more difficult and slower paced.   They suggest that it will take 6 months to compost in a home composter.  I've asked them for some scientific proof to back this up.  

However there are other questions I have... depending on how many snack packets you might use per week, what size composter would one consumer need to compost these packs effectively? Also how many consumers know how to compost correctly and effectively anyway? What percentage of the UK population have access to a composter and are able to compost at their home?

That's not to say this is impossible, but It appears to me that we do not have an infrastructure currently that can deal with this. 

 

Snact Q & A

My concerns: 

It is imperative at a time where there is already massive consumer confusion about what can be and what cannot be recycled we are clear about what packaging is made from and how we recover it.  Clear labelling and alongside that clear defined legislation and strict standards are needed.  We are, with plant based polymers adding another stream to the already failing UK waste management system.  

What needs to be done:

For biodegradable to be a better option than recyclables we must be able to recover it correctly.  It is essential that there is an infrastructure in place to deal with this.  Currently there is not.

We need better legislation and standards to cover biodegradable and compostables urgently.

Clear labelling on products about what the packaging is made from and how it should be recovered.

An infrastructure in place to recover plant based polymers - industrial composting (aerobic digesters with food waste, although it is possible that plant based polymers may be filtered out of this system) 

It is my belief that if we do not put legislation, standards, infrastructure and clear labelling in place now, "biodegradable plastics" have the potential to have a massive negative impact on our already suffocating environment. 

Biodegradables continue to encourage a disposable thought process and consumers may wrongly believe their "compostable" packaging will disappear when they drop it on the ground, in the ocean or send it to landfill.  This is the belief of most people I have spoken to about it. This in turn relieves consumers of responsibility of what happens to packaging once it has left their hands.   In addition to this biodegradable plastic will contaminate an oil based plastic recycling stream.  

It is incredibly hard to find information on this subject and I made the decision to write about it in the hope that  individuals, businesses and organisations will get in touch and add to my thoughts.  Waste management is currently complex and I implore the Government, big brands, product and packaging designers, scientists and waste facilities to put their heads together and use some joined up thinking.  Let's connect those dots.  Let's do it now. 

The Ban List (link below) has provided some much needed evidence about how biodegradable plastics behave in the environment and back up my concerns.  

Please do get in touch if you have something to add to this article.  We're all on a journey to find better solutions and I would be very interested to hear what you have to say.  I do not claim to be an expert on this subject but fear the consequences of businesses keen to be a part of the solution to the plastics problem are inadvertently adding to it.  

If we don't ask the questions we won't find the answers.

 

Sign the Cleaner Seas Project petition for Clear legislation and standards to cover home composting click here

 

Avril Sainsbury

 

Ei8ht Design

Cleaner Seas Project

 

References:

The BAN List 2. 

BBC news online

Tipa

Snact

New Plastics Economy

WRAP