What's the problem with plant-based packaging?

Written by: Paul Jackson | Published:
NRC member Simply Waste
A compelling and thorough read from Paul. I agree that changing existing infrastructure to fit a ...

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As the tide of public opinion turns against single-use plastic, with regulatory changes bound to follow in its wake, there has been rapid rise in the popularity of alternative forms of packaging across the industry.

However, this is more than a simple switch. The straightforward act of swapping a plastic cup for a greener option is a complex systemic adjustment with far-reaching impact.

As our customers make these changes, there is one common query regarding this new waste material: which bin should it go in? The deceptively simple answer to this question belies the intricacy of a rapidly unfolding issue.

The search for plastic alternatives

As businesses and consumers have begun to seek out alternatives to single use plastic packaging, manufacturers have emerged to meet this need with plant-based bioplastics.

Bioplastics can be broadly viewed in two categories: durable and biodegradable. Both are produced from plant-based raw materials that are undeniably more sustainable than fossil fuels, but there are key differences.

Durable

Durable bioplastics have been developed as an alternative to traditional PET bottles, such as fizzy drink packaging. These are manufactured from 30% plant-based ethanol. Durable bioplastics don’t decompose but they can be recycled with regular PET containers.

Biodegradable

Biodegradable bioplastics are unsuitable for recycling and are instead designed to break down completely. This is unlike the vast majority of existing petroleum-based plastics which will break down into smaller and smaller pieces, microplastics, but will never decompose or be absorbed by the environment. The unique nature of biodegradable bioplastics is attracting great attention.

One of the most prominent brands of biodegradable bioplastics is Vegware. The specialist manufacturer produces plant-based foodservice packaging such as beverage cups, sandwich boxes and takeout containers. These products are made from renewable, lower carbon or recycled materials, offering an attractive alternative to plastics.

In most cases, biodegradable bioplastics are designed to break down along with food waste under high-temperature industrial composting conditions. And herein lies the challenge for waste and recycling operators.

Existing infrastructure

For some years, the UK’s waste and recycling sector has been steered by government subsidies and guidance towards favouring anaerobic digestion (AD) as the preferred method of food waste treatment. Our collection, bulking and treatment infrastructure is orientated accordingly.

A quick recap of the difference between composting and anaerobic digestion would be useful at this point:

Composting

Composting is an aerobic process, reliant on the presence of oxygen. Under layers of waste, organisms naturally oxidise organic matter: nitrogen chemicals turn to nitrate, sulphur to sulphate, and phosphorus to phosphate. The composting process produces a nutrient-rich fertiliser. The slight downside is that aerobic processes produce CO2 as a waste product. Nevertheless, composting is a highly desirable clean source recycling alternative to landfill.

Anaerobic digestion (AD)

AD, on the other hand, is reliant on the absence of oxygen. Materials are sealed off and the bacteria live off the organic matter itself. A slower method than composting, AD produces rich fertiliser and also methane, which is a key component of biogas used to generate clean electricity.

The good news is that AD offers a closed loop solution for food waste. The bad news is that bioplastics cannot be treated by AD. In fact, bioplastics entering a food waste stream destined for AD will be mechanically removed before treatment and disposed of as general waste - often at landfill.

As the vast majority of the UK’s commercial food waste is processed by AD, this significantly restricts opportunities to dispose of bioplastics as intended. With only around 170 industrial composting facilities in the UK, we are ill-equipped to adequately compost meaningful volumes of biodegradable plastic. In fact, many operational industrial composting facilities won’t accept bioplastics and other biodegradable plastics as they are seen as contamination risks.

It is a sad truth that the rapid movement away from single-use plastics does not align with the current operational reality of the UK waste and recycling industry. As a result, we could even argue that plant-based packaging is less environmentally friendly than using durable bioplastics that can be recycled, or properly segregated traditional plastic that can be recycled or used to produce fuel to generate electricity.

What is the answer?

Any change to our waste streams, however well meaning, has a wide impact. New products aiming to reduce plastic pollution and boost sustainability need to be considered in the context of the packaging lifecycle, from sourcing to end-of-life, if we hope to achieve a circular packaging economy.

Adjusting our national infrastructure takes time, entails an elongated planning process, and requires regulatory standards to be set. Change demands a collaborative and integrated industry approach to ensure that we are able to meet the demands of the market sustainably, and to the right standards.

So, meanwhile, we must work with what is available to us.

Most organisations producing packaging waste typically have a general waste container and a mixed recycling container. Those in sectors such as hospitality also have food waste and glass containers. So which bin do plant-based bioplastics go in?

Biodegradable bioplastics can’t be recycled and will not be accepted by AD plants. Therefore, based on the typical operational structures in place, this material must go into the general waste stream.

Only when food waste is collected for industrial composting can these bioplastics be placed into the food container. In some cases, it may be possible to explore the development of composting options at a local level and this is something that National Resource Consortium’s (NRC) membership network can achieve.

But this requires sufficient volume of bioplastics, customer desire to segregate waste streams further and suitable or adaptable processes in place.

Next steps

Where our customers are considering changing to plant-based packaging, waste and recycling management companies should be engaging with the issue and supporting customer decision-making.

We should be carrying out total cost analyses and comparing the outcomes with the organisation’s value statement regarding single-use plastics. Under current circumstances, plant-based packaging typically costs more to procure and more to dispose of.

In the long-term, the better solution may be for the UK to focus on durable bioplastics that are made from plant materials, but can still be recycled. This way, valuable energy and material inputs can be kept in the production cycle for longer.

Given our established infrastructure, it may be more time and cost-effective to create a plant-based plastic that fits the UK’s existing capability, rather than developing an entirely new biodegradable plastic composting infrastructure from scratch.

Whatever the circumstances, it is clear that meeting this challenge requires innovation, entrepreneurial vision and industry-wide co-operation.

Paul Jackson is director at the National Resource Consortium.


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Comments
A compelling and thorough read from Paul. I agree that changing existing infrastructure to fit a new product over complicates the matter.

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Paul’s article reflects a lot of thoughtful thinking that is rapidly becoming outdated. As compostable materials (Paul, biodegradable is not a legal term) grow from near zero to some many thousands of tonnes, thanks to consumer demand, so do the recovery facilities. 19 IVC compost plants regularly accept rigid bioplastics from suppliers such as Vegware, but almost all 53 IVC plants accept films because these break down in very little time. Further, the EA has now ruled that all windrow composting can, if they wish, accept compostables such as coffee cups and lids. Rapidly, the infrastrucutre is widening. What is frustrating is the sense Paul gives that plastic recycling works, when in fact data shows only 9% of it is effectively recycled in the UK. Time to change- we are never going to be able to recycle plastic films and many other plastics, but we can easily recycle compostables.

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