With the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) commitment to “having 100% of Australian packaging recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025” I propose the idea that labelling, standardisation and service provision need to consider the compostable packaging range now.
In certain sectors compostable packaging is fully embraced. Hospitality, festivals and events in urban and regional areas already have or are transitioning to compostable coffee and cold drinks cups, lids, plates, shells and boxes. These are independent progressive businesses servicing a wide range of the community who all want an end market for their packaging.
Bioplastics made from plants, not petroleum, do not contaminate the environment and can be recycled through composting within Australia, thus eliminating transportation emissions and stimulating the Australian jobs market.
The confusion between recyclable and compostable is resulting in a two-way problem:
1) It is contaminating recycling in a problematic way because screeners at MRFs find it difficult to separate.
2) The lack of standardised labelling of compostable packaging results in non-compostable packaging contaminating organics streams.
“I want to state clearly that bioplastics are not recyclable”
So you cannot just put it in any bin and hope that it either gets recycled or composted. The truth that many of us in the industry know is, of course, that plastic lined TA cups can never be recycled so the question should never be between organics or recycling bin but rather between organics or residual waste. But that is side tracking.
“There is no standard appearance, wording or labelling that identifies compostables”
To start, it is very difficult to identify compostable packaging. It comes with many appearances from the paper/cardboard look to the clear plastic look to the opaque plastic look. It can be white, green, brown or clear. It can be rigid or flexible. Further, adding to the confusion is the lack of labelling or consistent wording. The brands state their own name such as BioPak, BioCup, Ecoware, Ecocup or vegware, to name a few. They may, or may not, add words like compostable or PLAr. But that is not to be confused with for example, BioWrap, which represents the pseudo environmental type of packaging called biodegradable, which is a type of plastic with embedded enzymes that increases the speed of breaking down the plastic into tiny bits of plastic. As an article in Food Dive stated, many companies are indeed trying to look “ecofriendly” whilst consciously not being compostable or recyclable. Further, packaging with several parts (i.e. Cup and lid, glass and straw, bowl and lid) may have different wording, feel and appearance.
To exemplify the problem, I will share some of my experiments.
I conducted an audit of a farmer’s market waste in preparation for the introduction of a public FOGO bin. The lack of a standardised printed messages or physical appearance made these products very difficult to identify. One cup with printed “ecocup” in the lip of the bottom of the cup was found to be compostable when we engaged with the stall holder and dragged out the box the cups came in. Cutlery had compostable and biodegradable written on it. A clear bioplastic straw claimed to be compostable but they have no writing on them and look like plastic. Then there was the plastic sleeves the packaging came in and what about the sugar sachets? One stall holder was using a compostable cup with a black plastic (recyclable) lid. When I took the audited sample up to the composting site for processing the screening staff were so nervous about contamination that they ended up sending it all to landfill. This of course, highlights good practice where the clean compost product is of vital importance. No farmer growing food, or council maintaining parklands wants to use compost with a shining layer of micro plastics.
In a recent bin inspection, we found compostable cups and take away shells in the recycling bins. The FOGO bin next to recycling bin had no information about compostable packaging. A couple of other big food events and festivals we have worked at found that most of the general waste was composed of compostable packaging. In conversations with community members we have heard stories of keen waste diverters who try and compost compostable packaging at home.
The Australian waste system is not set up to sort and process compostable packaging, but the hospitality and events/festival sector are powering ahead. We need to act now to avoid having to re-educate as we are trying to do now with the recycling stream. Regulators (APCO) need to research and implement a standardisation of the appearance and wording around compostable packaging. Policy makers and educators need to develop a standard message on what to compost. This is especially urgent as the roll out of FOGO around the nation is an opportunity for that message to be communicated. Industry, and I am thinking foremost now of organics processors, are critical to engage in the packaging and labelling journey as they will determine the fate of each object.
“The confusion around recyclables that regulators and councils are desperately trying to clarify through education and labelling will be replicated for compostables”
APCO and Planet Ark have launched a recycling label that came from a point of deep and extensive confusion of what defined recyclable and where it can be recycled. I suggest that this confusion has been growing as consumerism has seen packaging styles explode on the market and has resulted in a very complicated recycling sorting process. As such, different MRFs have different capacity. And then there is the issue of commodity processing. The key message is that the type of material and its processing has evolved over time with a lag in the strategic and education sector of recycling. This will happen to the compostable material too. Unless of course, we are proactive, financially wise, strategically efficient and forward thinking.
What look should our compostable packaging have?
Can it all be colour coded for ease of screening?
What wording do we describe compostable packaging with? Commercially compostable? FOGO compostable?
With the market at the moment being a manageable size, can we have a conversation between industry, policy and education now to set up for the future?