If you’ve ever bought a take-away coffee or a sandwich and noticed that the packaging was ‘compostable’, you might have had a momentary boost to your conscience. Here you were doing your bit for the environment, without even really trying. But what did you do with the compostable packaging once you’d finished with it?
Well, it’s compostable, so presumably, you can chuck it in your home composting bin and it’ll rot down with your onion skins and orange peel? No, not really. Compostable food packaging does biodegrade, but it takes time. Certainly longer than the two weeks or so your composting bin goes before getting emptied.
To recycle compostable food packaging in the most environmentally beneficial way, it needs to go to a specialist recycling facility. But that didn’t stop the almost four in ten UK consumers who took part in a recent study from trying it at home.
That’s right. 38% of the 2,000 UK consumers who recently took part in a nationally representative study said that they’d tried, and failed, to compost compostable packaging. And why wouldn’t they? It says compostable after all.
And if, like the 29% of consumers from the same study, you regularly put compostable packaging in a normal litter bin, that momentary boost to your conscience might have subsided a bit. Afterall, isn’t the point of compostable packaging that it doesn’t go to landfill?
Well, actually no. And that’s the problem. Compostable packaging is a slightly misleading term. In the vast majority of cases, such packaging isn’t compostable in the same way your carrot peelings and left over chicken tikka masala is compostable. And even it goes to landfill, it’s still better for the environment. It rots down by itself, unlike other types of food packaging that have chemical-based waterproof coatings.
It’s confusing. That’s why the owner of a Manchester-based packaging company is calling for changes to how the packaging is labelled. Tim Wilson, of RawPac, believes that ‘plant-based’ is a far more useful term. And here’s why.
“Home composting isn’t suitable for most ‘compostable’ food and drink packaging,” says Tim. “This sort of packaging requires a commercial composting facility for it to break down. But consumers can be forgiven for being confused. After all, it often says ‘compostable’ on the packaging. That’s why we’ve started calling our products ‘plant-based’, rather than ‘compostable’. It manages expectations.”
Tim believes customers are keen to do their bit for the environment, but they’re confused about how and frustrated at the lack of facilities available.
“Consumers clearly have an appetite for helping the environment and are paying attention to what their packaging is made of, but if they end up disappointed and frustrated by their expectations and the mixed messages they’re getting, we risk that appetite declining very quickly.
The study, conducted by RawPac, also found that 18% of consumers have left compostable packaging outside to rot, effectively littering due to misconceptions.
Younger consumers are most likely to believe it’s OK to drop litter if it’s compostable. 28% of 18-34 year-olds said they’d dropped litter that was marked ‘compostable’ thinking it would was OK to do so.
Tim says consumer expectations are out of kilter with reality.
“Labelling food and drink packaging as ‘compostable’ can cause consumers to see littering as harmless. Obviously a plant-based cup will break down eventually, but it is still an eyesore and contributes to other problems while it sits in a hedgerow or by the side of a road.”
“The industry is working hard to improve packaging and lower the environmental impact of convenience food and drink, but consumers are clearly frustrated at what they perceive to be a lack of facilities.
“The fact that a significant amount of consumers think that ‘sending to landfill’ is a bad thing in and of itself suggests we could all be doing more to educate people on the benefits of plant-based food and drink packaging.”
“We’re at a crucial point in the journey toward reducing our carbon footprint and hitting a critical mass of consumers demanding sustainable products, but if they think that their own effort is wasted, we’ll lose that support and momentum very quickly indeed.”
“One thing that really frustrates our customers is the lack of consistency across local authorities. With some authorities you can recycle certain things that others won’t let you. And that applies to green waste too, which requires better provision from local authorities and better awareness among consumers.”
Rawpac is based in Greater Manchester and was founded in more than thirty years ago. Their plant based disposable products are made from renewable, lower carbon or recycled materials and can biodegrade completely in under 12 weeks. All products are made from a combination of sugarcane, bamboo, wood, vegetable/plant oils, palm leaves and wood pulp.
The firm already supply a range of well-known companies including Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate, Camden Markets and Morellis Ice Cream and Tim is on a mission to make plant-based food and drink packaging the standard.