A PLASTIC REVOLUTION OR A LOAD OF RUBBISH?
Compostable bioplastics have been touted as the solution to our single-use, throw-away lifestyle, allowing consumers to enjoy takeaway coffees guilt-free. Turns out, it’s not that simple.
The issue of bio-plastics is complicated – not only for consumers, but for also for many small businesses who have been trying to do the right thing by making the switch from plastics to bioplastic alternatives.
Although interpreted and sometimes marketed as such, compostable plastic takeaway packaging wasn’t actually designed to be the solution to plastic pollution, instead it was designed to tackle food waste being contaminated with plastic packaging, as one of the original compostable packaging producers, Vegware explains here. Whilst Vegware’s plant-based disposables are designed to replace oil-based plastics in a foodservice setting, compostable packaging is not the solution to marine pollution.
What are bioplastics?
To be called a bioplastic, a product has to be either biodegradable or made from plant-based materials. But being made from a plant doesn’t mean a product will degrade like a plant, and being biodegradable doesn’t mean a product will break down with food waste in the kitchen.
Here’s our guide to everything you need to know about bioplastics….
Due to the complexities of these materials and their end-of-life, we recommend using reusables wherever possible. This means still carrying your reusable bag, and taking along your reusable coffee cup and box when you head to the local cafe.
Festival organisers need to work with their waste contractors to see what facilities are in their area to see what is practical. If there is an in-vessel composter, then all traders need strict guidelines on what compostable packaging can be accepted. The food waste bin will need to be clearly labelled and audiences communicated with clearly. But festivals shouldn’t shy away from going reusable either. Shambala has been leading the way with phasing out single-use coffee cups and this year they ae trialling reusable plates and cutlery.
2019 is going to be an exciting year for people adopting reuse. So we would suggest to café owners to encourage their customers to bring their reusable coffee cups and lunchboxes. Café’s can join the #longlivethelunchbox campaign launched by the Global Action Network to highlight their involvement.
If café owners want to use compostable packaging they can look into the Vegware composting collective scheme to see if they can send their food waste and packaging to a local in-vessel composter. Or if they have space they can also look at setting up their own rocket composter!
Home compostable and industrially compostable packaging will remain intact if they become litter in the street or one a beach. They will also remain intact if they end up in rivers and the sea because they need to be in a composting environment that gets hot.
There are new bio-plastics being created all the time. For instance, in Brazil they have developed a green-HDPE which mimics the plastic HDPE polymer (used for making milk bottles and hard plastic drink bottles) and can be recycled in the same way with plastics.
There are also salad bags being made from thistle-starches which are GMO free and suitable for home-composting. If these go in the food caddy it is most likely that they will get pulled out at the depackaging stage of a composting facility unless they degrade quickly on contact with water.
In Indonesia there are bioplastics being designed from seaweed to tackle the issues of small sachet litter. The sachets can be used with their contents e.g. if they have a drink in them they can go in the hot water. Or if used for washing will degrade in the washing water.
All single-use items contribute to a production cycle of continuous manufacture, transportation and waste disposal. They require energy, water and chemicals, creating greenhouses gases and industrial waste. This is true of both compostable and ordinary plastic. Plastic that can be reused―of whatever sort―only contributes to this cycle once in its lifetime. We strongly believe in reusing products over buying new ones.
A Life Cycle Assement comparison study of compostable bagasse (sugarcane fibre rather than PLA) burger boxes with reusable containers at the University of California and they found that a reusable polypropylene (plastic) container would need to be used more than 15 times to have a lower green house gas emissions, energy and waste impacts to a compostable one.
It depends on the type. Oxydegradable bags are just plastic bags that disintegrate into microplastics when they come into contact with air and sunlight and are therefore harmful to the environment. Compostable bags for food caddies might sound good, but the digester plants can’t break them down so they’re pulled out and incinerated.
It’s cheaper and easier to line your food bin with leftover newspaper.
Yes, that is true. Although there are concerns that an increase demand in the market will lead to crops being grown for bioplastics as with bio-fuels. However, according to most of the producers of compostable plastics, the corn starch and sugar cane ethanol is extracted as a bi-product of the crop production, so the crop is being harvested for multiple purposes e.g. corn for animal production and sugar cane for sugar.
One of the issues with these materials is that they can’t be certified organic or GMO free because of the crops they come from. Another issue, previously mentioned is that even though they are plant-based they could still cause damage to animals as they won’t degrade if they become litter.
The local cafe has switched to biodegradable cups for their takeaway coffees. Can I use them instead of bringing my own?
Sorry, no. Most takeaway cups sold as eco-friendly or biodegradable are lined with a waterproof layer of CPLA (temperature-resistant biodegradable plastic) which only breaks down under industrial composting conditions. The bioplastic element also means the cup can’t go in with kerbside cardboard and paper recycling schemes. The only place is general waste bin or ask them if they are organising a takeback scheme.
Unfortunately, the only bin for it is the general waste bin.
Compostables need very specific conditions to break down and our recycling infrastructure isn’t designed to handle them. Most food waste disposal plants can’t deal with solid packaging, so don’t put it in your food bin. And it’s not like ordinary plastic either so shouldn’t go in your recycling box as it will contaminate the whole load. There are a handful of sites that will accept compostables along with regular food waste but these are handled in bulk―from places like festivals or university research sites―and aren’t part of kerbside collections. If in doubt, any plastic marked as eco, compostable or biodegradable should go in with general waste.
The EU is planning to ban problematic bioplastics, like oxydegradable ones. However compostable plastics are part of all of the initiatives, Waste and Resources Strategy, New Plastics Economy and Plastics Pact to tackle problematic packaging. We think this is a distraction from tackling the problems of single-use. However as part of these consultactions the packaging and waste industries are talking to each other to find solutions.
Currently there is no legislation on packaging labelling so companies can write what they like. This is going to change and the Government is going to be hosting a consultation on bio and compostable plastics at the end of 2019.
Surely sending bio-plastic to landfill is better than ordinary plastic. Won’t it decompose eventually?
The conditions aren’t hot enough. Plus no waste decomposes in
Many people have asked if, compostable plastics give off methane in landfill like other organic materials. The answer is no, because they need to get to 60 before they start the decomposing, so they just remain inert.
At present plastic recyclers haven’t starting using the technology to differentiate between PLA and PET plastic there aren’t the current volumes of compostables to justify investing in it).
There are concerns that bioplastics will reduce the quality of oil-based plastic recycling as the polymers and materials are different. Although it has been suggested by some studies that the volumes of compostable materials getting into the recycling waste stream are still low.
No, they are not designed for recycling but composting. PLA has a number 7 on the bottom which may lead you to believe it is recyclable. However it is not. 7 is for ‘other materials’ which are not recyclable, so they shouldn’t go in the recycling bin.
Unfortunately, not. Most household food waste is composted at anaerobic digester plants, which work without heat or oxygen and can’t break down solid packaging, which includes your compostable food bag. This means any packaging gets pulled out for waste to energy incineration.
Even if your food waste caddy goes to one of the 18 plants in the UK that accepts compostable plastics, they wouldn’t know it isn’t an oil-based plastic ( there isn’t a person vetting every non-food item), so it would get removed. The company Vegware are working on a scheme called the Composting Collective so large institutions and cafes can take back their packaging and pay to get it disposed of at their local in-vessel composter. There are also big institutions like universities sending their compostable packaging to these in-vessel composters too.
If they are home-compostable and you have a compost bin in your garden then they go there. Otherwise, any compostable plastics need to go in your general waste bin. This will mean they will go for waste to energy incineration or landfill, yup they won’t get composted!
We’ve unpicked some of the questions we get asked the most frequently about bioplastics. If you’ve got a question we haven’t answered please get in touch and let us know and we’ll do our best to answer it!
Home compostable plastics If you see the home compostable sign it will most likely be the original bio-plastic, cellophane, which is made from cellulose derived from wood pulp. It is used for wrapping birthday cards, sweets and, more recently, as a base for bio-glitters. Cellophane will degrade within 28 to 60 days in a home composter at 20-30 degrees. Check for the home composting symbol to avoid contaminating your compost heap. To be clear – home composting isn’t the same as your council food caddy, which usually undergoes a different kind of composting process, but more on that later.
Oxy-degradable plastics These are sold as bags and straws and are actually petroleum-based plastics that break down into lots of little pieces. Yes, that’s right, they’re actually designed to turn into microplastics. The EU Environment Committee is demanding these are banned by 2020.
Compostable Plastics (commonly labelled as PLA) A polylactic acid derived from the sugar and starches of plants, most commonly corn starch and sugar cane. PLA is the clear bioplastic often used in salad and deli food boxes and as a liner in coffee cups and sandwich boxes. PLA will break down within 90 days in an industrial invessel composter running at 60 degrees. In order to be compostable it has to be tested and meets the criteria of EN13432
CPLA Like PLA but with added chalk. CPLA is used to hold food products that need to tolerate high heats: things like cutlery, coffee cup lids and for serving hot food. As with PLA, it needs to be broken down in an industrial invessel composter.
Biodegradable Plastics – This is a word used commonly used with bioplastics, but it can be misleading as most of us understand biodegradable to mean what happens to an apple core. In order for a bioplastic to be described as biodegradable it means it has passed the EN13432 test for industrial composting- so not like an apple core.
Water Soluable Bioplastics – Seaweed is being used to make drinking balls, and developed in Indonesia for washing liquids and food sachets which break down in water.
There are new materials being introduced all the time such as cassava root and thistle starch bags, but with all these materials its important to understand how long they take to degrade and what conditions they require. As most packaging in a food waste caddy will get pulled out for incineration before they have had a chance to break down, unless it is instant like the packaging puffs that you get. .