Compostable packaging confusion?

Compostable / biodegradable / degradable materials & what to do with them

Supermarkets are hoping to put an end to criticism over excess packaging with the introduction of compostable packaging. Sainsbury's is aiming to sell most of its fresh organic produce and all of its own-brand ready meals in maize-based compostable packaging by the end of the year, while Marks and Spencer have already sold over 132 million sandwiches packaged in cardboard, with clear windows made from maize. Are these new types of packaging the beginning of the end of guilt-ridden supermarket purchases?

Plastics Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencers' packaging is designed to breakdown in an ordinary home compost bin. Although they will decompose more quickly in a 'hot' bin, these products should break down at roughly the same speed as vegetable waste, even in a 'cool' compost bin. Packaging that has been approved as compostable by the Composting Association in the UK should bear the seedling logo (top image), although there are other logos around that also identify packaging as compostable shown here.

Unfortunately, nothing is ever simple when you are trying to be environmentally friendly - there is more than one type of compostable packaging! Belu have introduced the first compostable water bottle in the UK, but this product is only designed to break down in centralised composting facilities where the compost is guaranteed to reach high temperatures. To confuse you even further, Tesco have introduced degradable bags, which are neither recyclable nor compostable, but merely degrade more quickly than ordinary plastic bags.

Some retailers are heralding the use of compostable packaging as a solution to landfill problems. However, sceptics argue that most people do not compost at home and so most compostable packaging will be put in the normal waste for disposal in landfill, with the result that, as with any other organic matter in landfill, as it degrades it will give off methane. Additionally, if compostable packaging is put into the recycling stream, it can contaminate all the other materials, meaning that the whole batch cannot be recycled.

It’s really important to note that although a product may state that it is ‘Compostable’ does not mean that it can be accepted in our green waste collections. The majority of local authorities will not accept compostable packaging in either their garden waste or food waste collections this is because of the risk of contamination which can be extremely costly to the local authority. So although commercial composters in theory can process this waste they are not doing so because of the risks of contamination.

Above all, a key worry about the use of compostable packaging is that it promotes recycling, rather than placing emphasis on the top tier of the hierarchy for waste management - reducing the amount of waste produced in the first place.

Main points you need to know

If you wondering which about packaging on your purchases, please remember the following points:

  • Always reduce before recycle
  • Degradable does not mean biodegradable - degradable carrier bags from Tesco and Co-op do not compost
  • Do not put ordinary plastic bags or degradable bags in a green waste collection
  • Look for the compostable logo for materials that can be composted at home
  • Compostable packaging cannot currently be placed in your garden or food waste collections but please check for any alternative collections locally.

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