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What does Compostable mean?

Given that we are now coming to the end of plastic free July and in the hope that many of you will be continuing your good habits. I thought it would be timely to talk about Compostables.


I must admit; I, like many I’m sure saw Compostables as the answer to replacing plastic.


Great! an item that doesn’t go into landfill but back into the ground, what an excellent idea!!

..and overall, I still do think that Compostables are a great example of circularity.


However, it was only really when took on my own plastic free challenge did I start to really look into Compostables and how they work, so let me start by giving you a quick overview of what compostable actually means:


The definition of compostable is:


organic material that can, through the process of decomposition, be turned into nutrient-rich soil or fertilizer.
Composting itself is the process of returning your organic waste, leaves, grass clippings, banana peels, coffee grounds, and the like back to nature, so that it can eventually be reused as compost.




Simple right?... Well actually no! You see, I have a compost heap at home and whilst I’m more than happy to put fruit and vegetable peelings on there and even torn up bits of paper and cardboard, when you start bringing things like compostable cups and packaging into the equation it gets a whole lot trickier.


BIODEGRADABLE AND COMPOSTABLE


Biodegradable and compostable are terms used when describing organic materials breaking down in a specific environment.- and it’s the ‘specific environment’ bit which you need to pay attention too. Even my home compost heap needs careful maintenance and aerating so that oxygen is present in the process. You see, any time organic material breaks down it will produce CO2 and Methane but by ensuring there is oxygen in the process keeps methane to a minimum and its definitely still way better than it going to landfill.


The term biodegradable can often be misleading and used as a marketing tool for items that are not always environmentally friendly. – Everything breaks down eventually but how long they take and whether they then turn into smaller bits of microplastics is not always the obvious bit on a label!!


When something is labelled at compostable, it means that the product “can” be turned into compost as long as it's under the correct conditions. If the item is food, paper-based, or wood-based, it's likely compostable under the most basic composting conditions, including a compost heap in your garden.


So lets just give a quick summary:

  • Degradable – anything that can be broken down either biologically or chemically (every product).

  • Biodegradable – a product that can be broken down by bacteria and organisms.

  • Compostable – a product can be broken down into natural elements without harming the environment

You can find out more on the definitions above on the ‘Save Money, Cut Carbon’ Website here


COMPOSTABLE PACKAGING


It gets even more confusing when you bring into the mix compostable packaging; straws, cups and containers made from Bio-plastic. Bio-plastic itself can be quite confusing as its not one materials but covers a wide range of materials, generally bioplastic is a biodegradable materials that comes from renewable sources - see more information on this here. You may have seen recently a number of cafes and food stands at events using these types of compostable cups for smoothies for example. – which seems like a good solution for single use plastic.



But where do you put it once you finish your drink?


Is it a type of plastic, does that mean it can be recycled?


Or can it go in the general bin?


You’re at an event or out on the high street confused thinking 'what do I do with it'?


  • Option 1 – put it in the general waste

  • Option 2 – put it in the recycling

  • Option 3 – take it home and put it in your home compost heap or food bin





Well actually you shouldn’t be doing any of these things, if the item ends up in landfill it will eventually break down but it will take a lot longer and may GHG’s all the while in the mean time, if you put it in with the recycling it will contaminate the recycling bin as its not a form of plastic and cannot be recycled, and if you put it in your home compost heap, it’ll just sit there!


These type of items can only be composted at an industrial composting facility. This means that it only decomposes under very specific conditions and will take far longer to break down if sent to a landfill. These products are better for the environment than plastic-based ones, but they need to be composted properly to get the full effect. Try finding an industrial composting facility on your way home or on the high street!!





I had this issue recently, where I was planning a party. I was deciding between reusable plates and glasses or disposables, I didn’t want to use disposables so I looked at compostables. I thought if I managed it carefully, scraped any food into my food bin, and then set up a specific bin for the plates and cutlery then I’d be able to get them collected or take them to a composting facility. I also looked at what you can put in your food bin and also your garden waste bin both of which we have in place, but neither included compostable items. When I researched it I saw that there was no composting facility of this kind in the whole of Somerset. If I had wanted to do this I could have ordered the items from Vegware and then used the collection box scheme through UK waste company First Mile - see link to Vegware website and details on this here , . In the end because the hire facility wasn't too far from the event location, and I could go and collect and return the items, the cost of purchasing and returning compostables was actually not much cheaper on balance than hiring all the items and returning them to be washed.


Reusable crockery and cutlery is of course the best option at an event if possible. But if you cannot use reusables or you're at a festival or outdoor event, then compostables are a great idea , but they do need to be managed properly - providing the right bins on site and ensuring you have a collection arranged or can take them to a suitable facility. Communication and signage are key to avoiding that confusion of what to do with the cup or tray after someone has finished their food and drink and consider even a team of green volunteers who can assist and direct people to the right bin to use and litter pick your site.




If you need further tips and advise on running a sustainable event, why not book in a free half hour consultation with Lisa Sweeting. You can also check out our free download on our website home page called 'Getting Started with Sustainability'.


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