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We need to include compostable packaging in the definition of biowaste
Consumer awareness and concern about mounting waste and its detrimental impact on the planet has never been higher. But with education comes action, and the global rejection of plastic on both consumer and corporate levels has enabled innovation to find an alternative to plastic that’s performs the same functions but is less environmentally damaging.
As is often the way with complex problems, the solutions have been around, albeit relatively unnoticed, for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence on the British Isles found that the inhabitants of prehistoric Scotland used compost to enrich soil with nutrients as far back as 12,000 years ago. Composting has today developed on an industrial scale, with the UK hosting 53 compost plants and 170 anaerobic digester plants that can treat over five million tonnes of green and food waste annually. But what if we could compost the packaging that contains our food in the same manner?
Plastic not fantastic
According to a recent study published by the WEF, the world has produced an estimated 8.3 billon megatons of plastic since 1950, a very small amount of which has been successfully recycled. Flexible packaging made from plastic films – for example, those used for snacks, granola bars and meat – often contain several raw materials that makes them impossible to recycle. Today, only 9 per cent of all manufactured plastic actually gets recycled, with the majority incinerated, sent to a landfill or dumped into natural environments. It is also important to highlight that recycling is not an endless process – recyclable packaging can be recycled only once or twice, which means recycling only delays eventual disposal or incineration. When a mere percentage of plastic is recycled, virgin plastics are still required to create new products with the recycled material.
A rethink of epic proportions has begun in the face of this depressing picture, with manufacturers and retailers alike desperately seeking plastic alternatives. Failing to respond to this primary consumer demand could spell a loss of customers on a grand scale – the issue has become that important in influencing buying decisions.
Is eradication the answer?
There have been a number of attempts to eradicate plastic, but alternative solutions have proved relatively problematic. Earlier this year, Iceland trialled packaging bananas in paper bags, which failed due to the packaging leading to a 20 per cent shrinkage in the size of the fruit, faster decomposition, and other complications. Generally, non-plastic packaging cannot compete with plastic when it comes to protecting food from damage during its journey from farm to aisle and aisle to home. Plastic also offers manufacturers unrivalled flexibility when printing, cutting and assembling packaging for products where a significant shelf-life is necessary.
In circumstances where glass, paper or aluminium are not a viable packaging alternative, what then is the answer? Compostable packaging is gaining momentum as a solution to this conundrum.
Modern compostable packaging is made up of polymers that can be bio-based and/or fossil-fuel based to varying degrees. This is the basis of our innovation at TIPA. We have created packaging solutions based on our innovative films that safely compost in 180 days in home or industrial composters – just like an orange peel. The result is new packaging solutions with a healthy end-of-life cycle made from viable materials that, when returned to the earth, will not damage ecosystems, but benefit them. TIPA is already providing worldwide solutions for the food and fashion industries aligned to this vision.
Scaling the solution
There is currently confusion among consumers about compostable packaging. For clarity, compostable products break down into organic materials in a home or community compost heap or industrial composter via a food waste collection bin.
Complementary to DEFRA’s plans to create an organic waste collection system across the UK, there is an opportunity to develop a biowaste definition that will include compostable packaging. This will allow for an effective collection system and processing of the packaging together with the organic waste. It will also help to capture more organic material and ensure a cleaner biowaste stream away from conventional plastic packaging contaminants.
With the right infrastructure, either at home or via industrial recycling, compostable materials have the potential to replace the recyclable and non-recycled conventional flexible plastic while possessing the same benefits. By transforming waste into compost, as those ancient Scots did 12,000 years ago, we can make a real difference in reducing the amount of plastic packaging lingering in landfills and improve the capture and value derived from organic waste.
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