Photo of Claire Rampen

By Claire Rampen

No-one needs to remind you that packaging waste is a problem; even if you missed the harrowing scenes in the BBC’s Blue Planet, it’s hard to avoid the many stray bottles and crisp packets that whip across your path on a windy day in London or Paris. Where other types of pollution may be “invisible”, we are faced with daily evidence of this broken system. 

It’s no wonder that ambitious and optimistic startups (like Finland’s Sulapac, Italy’s Vegea or Scotland’s Vegware) are jumping on this as a problem to solve. What the packaging industry may lack in sex appeal, it makes up for in ubiquity and market size; valued at $917bn in 2019, and forecast to reach over $1tn globally by 2024. 

Finnish packaging startup Sulapac’s compostable straws.

So, when you see headlines like “I invented a plastic alternative from fish waste!”, it’s hard not to get excited — is this the silver bullet to pragmatically tackle our society’s addiction to single-use? 

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In Europe we have seen some large chains embracing the switch to this new wave of packaging with enthusiasm, such as Ekoplaza supermarket in the Netherlands, Aloha Poké restaurant in Spain, and Le Pain Quotidien, across its whole footprint. 

“We are still no closer to sorting out what happens to packaging when we don’t need it anymore.”

However, it was only when I started to better understand our recycling and waste management infrastructure that I realised the enormous challenges that come with these “solutions”. While these new companies may address the materials issue (moving away from using virgin oil to formulate the plastics and replacing it with lower-emission alternatives such as sugarcane or flax), we are still no closer to sorting out what happens to packaging when we don’t need it anymore.

Diagram of different types of plastic
Different types of plastic; what they’re made from and how they can be recycled or broken down (Claire Rampen).

But surely it will just… break down? 

Before we get too excited about making everything compostable, we should ask ourselves what the knock-on infrastructure demands will be. For example, here are a few sobering facts about the composting infrastructure in my home country, the UK:

1/ Council provision of compost facilities (via home food waste collection) is not standard across the UK.

This WRAP 2019 report showed only 51% of English households had access to compost facilities. Participation in using the facilities is, of course, lower. 

In short, too few people have access to, or actually use, composting facilities.

2/ Home composting is also not powerful enough to handle most “compostable” plastics.

Yes, these materials will break down in the right conditions. No, they will not break down if you plant them in your garden or put them in your food waste bin and hope for the best. 

Companies like Vegware are investing in industrial composting sites to deal with the end-of-life of their products — but there just aren’t enough of them to cover the whole of the UK yet.

3/ We lack the facilities on our streets

People are most likely to be using single-use items when they’re out and about — but when was the last time you saw a compost bin on the street?

4/ Plant-based plastics are causing havoc in the current system

This is where it gets even more complex: a polymer made of oil is not the same as a polymer made of plants, and our current recycling infrastructure is only set up to identify and recycle oil-based plastics. Mixing polymers can contaminate the recycling, turning good intentions bad.

If you put compostable packing in the bin it may never break down, but if it does, similar to food waste decomposing in the wrong environment, it will emit methane — 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide

Are we being responsible? 

We’ve all done the bin dance, spending many a minute dithering over where to put our rubbish. At a conference recently I returned to the lunch area to find the packaging (labelled “compostable”) had been thrown into every bin there was. 

Life is increasingly getting more complex, both for consumers and for the waste-management companies sorting those bins.

As evidenced by the influx of these new plastics, the packaging industry can be quick to move, but building infrastructure to support it takes time.

Is it responsible to flood the market with “compostables” when we can’t handle their disposal? 

We need to take action; what can we do now?

Arguably, creating well-incentivised ‘circular’ systems (e.g. re-use) makes more sense than jumping on the new plastics bandwagon in the short-term. If you think this sounds like an idealistic solution, bear in mind that countries such as Norway and the Netherlands have demonstrated that this behaviour can work; they achieve return rates of packaging as high as 95% through their incentivised recycling schemes. 

Photo of A CupClub drop-off point in London
A CupClub drop-off point in London

There are plenty of these re-use companies springing up: for example, CupClub and Muuse tackle the on-the-go food and drink challenges by embedding tracking chips in their cups and plates and building a network of returns points. 

Crucially, these systems embed the mindset and behaviours we need to address this challenge. Re-use should always come before recycling — the fewer single-use items we need to manufacture (compostable or otherwise) the better. 

“When 25% of people in a group adopt a new social norm, it creates a tipping point where the entire group follows suit.”

The good news? You can be part of that solution — new research by the University of Pennsylvania found that “when 25% of people in a group adopt a new social norm, it creates a tipping point where the entire group follows suit”. So quite quickly re-use behaviours start to become the new normal. 

Refusing that coffee cup might not feel like a huge win for the climate on its own, but it models the change we want to see and gets us closer to that inflection point. 

 

Claire Rampen is cofounder of Reath Box, a circular economy startup based in Edinburgh which makes it easy for cosmetic and toiletry brands to switch to refillable packaging.

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Andrew
Andrew

Great article, the whole issue is the whole life of all packaging. – What is the impact of the resources needed to make the item – Is it single use or reusable item – Can the item be reused or recycled – What is the impact at end of use, waste, bio-degradeable or compostable of the item What is the total of all these points for item A compared to item B? Only once you have the total for all to compared definitively can you know which packaging is best for the item you need it for. The best way… Read more »

Gürhan SANIGÖK
Gürhan SANIGÖK

I totaly agree that re-use sense more sense but when you find a solution about reusing plastic, some people does not see it as a solution. They think: to have an innovation, you should invent a “new” solution. I guess we still look in wrong direction. Producing new thing is not always a solution, changing our habits might be. I hope I can change first “sustainability solution” seeker’s habits first I am sure others will follow.

Wouter Moekotte
Wouter Moekotte

Although biobased plastics can be somewhat confusing, the author misses the point and fails to appreciate the benefits compostable plastics can have in increasing waste separation, diverting organic waste from landfill and incineration, as well as using an annually renewable resource rather than oil & gas derived plastics. Sadly, 50% or more of organic waste is going to landfill or incineration. Compostable fresh produce bags, tea bags and coffee pads divert organic waste from landfill and add value to the quality of compost. Moreover, household plastic recycling is a true disaster with extremely low real recycling rates. Have a look… Read more »

O P Ratra
O P Ratra

An encouraging/positive survey relating to much talked of/campaigned for biogradables.But the end result remains, how/where to dispose bioplastics as against conventional plastics which are environment friendly/recyclable as per ISO standards/even reusable in certain cases.Activists/Environment groups must stop negative campaigns against plastics/single use plastics like PE/,PP bags/PET bottles/ PP straws,n other styrofoam /PP disposable items/cutlery ,which after collection of used items are recyclable
n traded in recycling centre

,,,,

Cousins
Cousins

Loved this article, some very interesting and important points. Our business provides compostable plates, cups, straws and ponchos among other things. We have partnered up with an industrial composting partner and developed a free post back scheme, to ensure that any goods in our Compostable range bought from us can be 100% composted for free.

Gendragonfly
Gendragonfly

This article like many other articles on this subject oversimplifies its explanation of the problems in managing plastic waste. This oversimplification leads to misinformation and makes recycling seem like something so complex most people will think: ‘Why even bother, if there is no good solution?’ The world of recycling plastic and waste management isn’t black and white, its a very very grey area. But that doesn’t mean its impossible to have proper waste management or to recycle plastics properly (see the second to last paragraph for more information). A couple of examples of oversimplification that can lead to misunderstanding in… Read more »