Compostable packaging in Greater Manchester

15th August 2019

There is often a lot of confusion when it comes to compostable packaging, the way to dispose of it and the actual meaning of the word. This post will hopefully help clarify slightly.

Definitions

Degradable: Used for a product that decomposes into smaller bits. In a vast majority of cases, products branded as degradable plastic will not be recommended at all in so far as they decompose into micro plastic, polluting air and water.

Biodegradable: The term means that the product will biodegrade and therefore leave no trace of plastic or micro-plastic in the environment. However, it is a loose concept as timeframes and conditions to achieve this are not defined. In effect, seeing “biodegradable” labelled on a product does not guarantee whether it is or not a good choice for the environment until the exact type of material is known. Some companies will genuinely use materials that biodegrade over short periods of time in usual conditions while others will use the loophole to greenwash an unsustainable product.

Compostable: As opposed to biodegradable, the term compostable is subject to more precise standards (EN 13432). It still needs to be checked that the product follows this standard. This certification means the product will turn to compost in an industrial composting facility. To ensure it can be composted at home, the product must be deemed “home compostable”.

Types of compostable packaging

There are a number of available packaging materials that can follow the EN 13432 compostable standard:

  • Paper
  • Cardboard
  • Some bioplastics like PLA (Poly Lactic Acid)
  • Bagasse

NB: The above does not mean that all packaging items made of these materials are compostable but that they can be if the manufacturers have included this in their product’s specifications and had it certified accordingly as per EN 13432.

Issues around compostable packaging

  1. Waste collected in the green bins over Greater Manchester does not go through a long enough process to tackle all EN 13432 compostable waste so there is no guarantee it can be composted here in Manchester.
  2. If not disposed of properly, compostable waste is not guaranteed to biodegrade quickly in a marine environment for example. A compostable bioplastic straw would take years to decompose and would pose a threat to wildlife in the same way as a regular plastic straw.

What’s the answer then?

In a large majority of cases, the most sustainable option will be to simply avoid disposable items and choose reusable options. When not possible, paper or cardboard can definitely be composted, even at home if you have access to a composter.