Does compostable packaging really break down?

2024-07-05

    We may only use disposable plastic products for a few minutes, while an ordinary plastic bag takes 20 years to decompose in the natural environment, a disposable coffee cup lined with plastic film takes 30 years, a plastic straw takes 200 years, a plastic bottle takes 450 years, and some baby diapers take 500 years...

    Plastic pollutants kill 100,000 Marine mammals each year, and 81 of the roughly 130 Marine mammal species have accidentally eaten plastic or become entangled in it.

    The harm of plastic products to the environment has been notorious, more and more environmentally friendly options than traditional plastic into people's vision, of which compostable research accounts for a large proportion.

    Compostable plastics belong to a class of biodegradable plastics. Compostable plastic refers to the plastic under compost conditions, through the role of microorganisms, can be transformed into carbon dioxide, water and the mineralized inorganic salts of the elements contained in it and new biomass in a certain period of time, and the resulting compost should meet the provisions of relevant standards in terms of heavy metal content, toxicity tests, residual debris, etc.

    In terms of industry scale, the demand for traditional fossil fuel-based single-use plastic packaging alternatives is currently on the rise, and the market for compostable packaging is expected to grow at an annual rate of 17% from 2020 to 2027. Compostable packaging brings potential environmental, economic and social benefits, using food packaging and food residues inside the packaging for composting infrastructure and reducing greenhouse gas emissions when they otherwise end up in landfills. To meet the growth of compostable packaging, there needs to be more composting infrastructure to fully guarantee the value of these materials.

    A trial of recycling behaviour by the UK Compostable Alliance found a fivefold increase in consumers throwing compostable packaging into food bins.

    "Our findings clearly demonstrate that once consumers see a label that actively instructs them on where to discard these packages, their ability to behave is greatly improved."

    During the trial, 120 households received items that were compostable and in plastic packaging, the latter of which was labeled using labels developed by Hubbub and Packaging Recycling Label (OPRL).

    As well as an increase in compostable packaging going into organic bins, the trial also found a 23 per cent increase in the amount of food thrown away in food bins, while pollution levels in these bins fell from 9 per cent to 3 per cent.

    The consortium also reported the results of a trial conducted at a composting site in EnVar. Here, the biodegradability of 13 tons of compostable items, such as coffee pods, tea bags and disposable cutlery, was tested. These products were found to successfully biodegrade under conditions normally present on industrial composting sites, and subsequent composting was PAS100 certified.

    Coincidentally, the Composting Alliance, an industry partnership led by the Center for the Circular Economy at ClosedLoopPartners, recently released a groundbreaking report that analyzed the breakdown of certified food contact compostable packaging in real-world composting facilities.

     The founding partners of the Compost Alliance are PepsiCo and the NextGen Alliance, which is made up of Starbucks, McDonald's and other foodservice brands. Supporting partners include Colgate-Palmolive, Kraft Heinz, Mars, and Target, as well as industry partners the Biodegradable Products Institute and the American Plastics Convention.

    In total, the study tested more than 23,000 certified food-contact compostable packages in a large-scale industrial composting environment.

The results show that certified compostable packaging in contact with food is viable as an alternative packaging solution to single-use traditional plastic packaging.

    There is growing awareness of the climate risks posed by food scraps being wasted in landfills, as well as the challenges posed by packaging waste that is not recycled. This has driven widespread support for changing the status quo, including the desire for widespread use of compost and innovative compostable packaging that can be composted with food.

    Collaboration between different stakeholders is essential and we look forward to the composting coalition coming together to make rapid progress.

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