The problem with compostable packaging
When it comes to packaging, we all know that we don’t want plastic. It is made from petroleum, takes centuries to degrade (releasing CO2 as it does), and only a fraction of it can actually be recycled. So what next?
Compostable packaging is growing in popularity. This will biodegrade quickly, and so it isn’t going to pollute our oceans. However, most of it doesn’t actually get composted, and as a result it will rot and produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
It is still better than plastic
Before I go into the details, don’t get me wrong, it is miles better than plastic, especially if we get better at composting it. The last thing I want you to takeaway is that compostable packaging is pointless and we might as well just use plastic. Please don’t think that.
Why doesn’t it get composted?
Here are the reasons why compostable packaging doesn’t currently get composted.
Many people don’t have a compost bin/heap
In order to compost, you need to either do it yourself, or have it collected by the council. Not every council offers collection, and even if they do you aren’t automatically provided with a bin. Managing your own compost requires space, effort/time and knowledge. Rightly or wrongly, people don’t have all of this.
Council collections only allow food and garden waste
Even if you do get a compost bin from the council, it is a food waste bin, and so doesn’t allow compostable packaging. Packaging takes longer to break down than food/garden waste, so by excluding packaging they can get through a lot more composting. Therefore you can’t easily send packaging to be composted at the moment.
It won’t break down on your own compost heap
Much of the compostable packaging will only break down in temperatures over 50 degrees Celsius. You can buy “hot compost bins” that will do the job, but packaging isn’t going to break down on your compost heap. In general, it needs to go to an industrial composting facility where they can optimise the temperature and humidity.
People put it in recycling
People often think “oh this is a sustainable product, it must go in recycling”. Wrong, it cannot be recycled. In fact, it is more likely to contaminate the recycling process, meaning that a whole batch of waste cannot be recycled, and so all of that has to go to landfill too.
People put it in normal waste
Whether it’s because you just throw everything in the general waste bin, or because you are aware that the packaging can’t go in food waste or recycling, the most common outcome is that this packaging goes in the general household waste bin.
What happens to it then?
All roads lead to landfill. It will of course degrade over time (unlike plastic), but it rots in a way that produces methane (anaerobic decay). Methane is a harmful greenhouse gas, and so I’m sure you are aware of why we don’t want to produce that.
What should we conclude?
Firstly, if you have a choice, buy compostable rather than plastic. Unlike plastic, it can be made from sustainable sources, it will decompose, and it’s possible to do it without producing greenhouse gases. The more compostable products we use, the more effective we (both individuals and councils) will get at composting. Let’s not give up on it.
A better solution is (and always will be) to reuse packaging. That way we are creating no waste. Fewer products have to be made, and no effort has to be expended to dispose of it effectively.
At BrewBix we now pack directly into cardboard. This is better than compostable packaging because everyone knows how to recycle cardboard, meaning we don't have to send it to landfill. We can source cardboard sustainably (either because we can grow trees or recycle paper/card), so we aren't using up natural resources. As such, I believe much less material will go to landfill than any other packaging option we currently have, and less greenhouse gas will be produced as a result.
Hi Tom, great article. Definitely a few things I didn’t know about compostable waste. Look forward to receiving my next order in a cardboard box.