Bio-Plastics & Compostable Claims: Green Innovation or Just Another Eco-Hype?
If this were a TikTok Video I would intro this as “I investigated Eco packaging so you don’t have to part 1”. I wanted to deep dive into whether all of the claims we see on packaging really do live up to what they say. Whether it’s ‘home compostable’, ‘made from plants’ or ‘industrial compostable only’, first step is understanding what this means and de-mystifying some of these claims:
Bio-based plastics are an intriguing and increasingly popular alternative to conventional fossil-based plastics.
But what exactly are they? Unlike traditional plastics derived from petroleum, bio-based plastics come from renewable biological materials. These can include plants such as corn, sugarcane, and cassava, as well as other organic matter like wood pulp or even agricultural and industrial food waste such as feathers and fish scales.
This sounds too good to be true! While bioplastic may sound green, it's essential to consider the broader environmental picture. Growing raw materials for bio-based plastics might compete with food crops, cause pollution from fertilizers, or lead to deforestation. These products will also release methane into the atmosphere when left to rot in landfills across the country contributing to C02 emissions.
But all bioplastics biodegrade right? Not all bio-based plastics are biodegradable or compostable. The terms and certifications can be complex, and the exact nature of the plastic's decomposition varies widely based on its composition. Just because it’s a bio plastic doesn’t make it compostable!
Home Compostable vs Industrial Compostable
I love seeing these claims!
If it can just break down at home, it must be better than plastic right?
Let’s really deconstruct what that means.
Industrial compostable means that the product has proven to biodegrade in a facility at 58 degrees Celsius over a maximum time of 6 months. The level of disintegration must reach 90% for the product to be authorised.
Home compostable means that the product biodegrades at temperatures between 20 degrees and 30 degrees over a period of 12 months. Again, the level of disintegration must reach 90% for the product to be given the official authorisation label.
In the UK compostable packaging must meet the specific criteria for composting under BS EN 13432. Packaging that is proven to be either home or industrial composted will have a certified label that looks like this:
How to Dispose of it all?
Let me be brutally honest it is downright confusing!
- All compostable plastics are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable plastics are compostable.
- Not all bio-based plastics are compostable and not all compostable plastics are bio-based.
Bio plastics, industrial compostable packaging, and any other greenwashed packaging you can think of goes in general waste.
OK, what about green waste?
The news is slightly better here. Some facilities will take biodegradable packaging if it has the correct certified label.
Unfortunately, local councils are still playing catch up given the sizable capital investment required to address these new types of materials. This mean that the sorting machines for green waste are designed to identify anything that looks like plastic, as a plastic and to reject the waste. Your well-intended “wish composting” will result in the waste being identified as contaminated due to the presence of a plastic like item and the whole lot will end up in landfill.
Is there any good news here?
Of course! The good news is that you don’t need the packaging. Here’s my top tips for you to avoid all this craziness entirely.
- Shop Packaging Free- The Source Bulk Foods (obviously), Butchers, Fishmongers and Farmers markets and local fruit and vegetable shops in your community that sell without the packaging.
- Eating Out – Reclaim your lunch hour and bring something from home and eat it in a local park. You’ll save money and probably be a lot healthier. Alternatively sit down in a café avoiding the disposable (greenwashed) packaging.
- Bring your own – Bring it back! Remember your reusable coffee cups and bottles when you head to your favourite café. Try asking your favourite restaurants to fill your containers. My favourite local Thai restaurant (the wonderful Koasarn) has refilled my plastic containers for years with their delicious curries.
- DeliverNOO – Avoid the green washed packaging by embracing innovative restaurants that allow you to return their packaging. Pat and I are loving Dabba Drop in South-West London. The food is exceptional, and they pick up their reusable containers the next time they deliver.
- Research recycling Facilities – In London, First Mile and Paper Round have specific facilities to manage compostable packaging. Use your local council’s website to find out where you can find a local recycling facility that handles compostable packaging.
- Responsible Rubbish Sorting – if all else fails, make sure you are keeping the bio plastics that can’t be recycled out of your recycling. The reality is that if you add these products in your recycling bin, it will degrade and contaminate the harder plastics in there. Wish-cycling is not helpful if it means the entire bag of recycling ends up in landfill instead.