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Home composting of packaging is bananas

Supermarkets and consumer brands are looking for new packaging ideas as we all worry about the fate of the plastic that protects our food. Waitrose, an upscale supermarket, recently announced the introduction of the first home compostable ready meal trays. This follows an earlier announcement that their Duchy Organic bananas would be packaged in home compostable bioplastic bags, which will also be used for other loose produce in the future. 

But, is home composting a good solution to the plastic problem? The UK’s Prince Charles, who started the Duchy Organic brand, has enough land to devote to composting, and the staff to ensure that it is done correctly. People short of garden space or time will just put this packaging in the normal bin. It doesn't sound like a viable strategy to solve the plastic packaging problem.

The European Bioplastics association cautions against home composting of any materials other than garden waste. They also point out that it is neither accepted as a form of recycling nor a legal waste treatment option in European regulation.  This is because home composting is uncontrolled, with any gases produced emitted directly to the atmosphere, and no quality checks on the compost returned to the soil.  The European Standardisation organisation, CEN, has said that this packaging should be treated in industrial facilities to ensure the recovery of biogas and high quality compost.

So professional advice is that composting of bioplastic should be carried out under controlled conditions in an industrial facility. Perhaps the push for home composting is a response to the complaints from waste management services that this packaging doesn’t break down sufficiently quickly. Manchester authorities tell residents not to place any compostable plastic items into their food or garden bins other than the thin compostable bags to line them. 

But all industries involved in the production, sale and disposal of plastic packaging, are going to have to adapt their processes. The chemical industry will need to modify petrochemical processes to accept waste plastic. The waste management industry will have to improve sorting and mechanical recycling. Similarly, operators of composting facilities must change conditions so all compostable packaging and food waste can be processed together. 

The development of processes to recycle and compost packaging is underway but there will be a delay before they are implemented. It is understandable that supermarkets want to take action immediately, but outsourcing waste management to the customer is not the answer. Encouraging consumers to compost their plastic packaging at home is a can of worms not a solution. 

Published: 30 May 19

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