Posted: 31/03/2021

Breaking it down: The consumer minefield of compostable packaging

compostable packaging

In recent years, under pressure from the public to cut plastic pollution, a number of supermarkets have introduced ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags. While on the surface this may seem like a step in the right direction, dig a little deeper and not is all as green as it seems.

A recent report by The Green Alliance into the grocery sector’s actions on packaging stated that some companies that had trialled compostable bags found they did not degrade as expected, other reports have found they carry a higher carbon footprint than their traditional counterparts and, most importantly, it is still a plastic bag – only one that more efficiently breaks down into microplastics. 

“Consumers… are hugely confused about what bio-based, compostable and biodegradable mean,” the report said. 

Some producers who have committed to truly biodegradable, plastic-free packaging have called for greater clarity to help the 85% of consumers who are concerned about plastic pollution.

“It can be hard for people to distinguish between all the terms that are thrown around,” says Tobias Taylor of Voyager Coffee, a Dartmoor-based roastery that uses fully plant-based packaging. “There are a lot of products that say they’re compostable, and you think are good for the environment, but a lot of it is plastic with an enzyme in that breaks it down into smaller bits of plastic.”

After a lengthy period of R&D, in 2018 Voyager switched its packaging to a compostable, vegetable starch-based material, PLA. The bags will break down in a home composter and eventually become a “soil improver” says Taylor.

Another producer whose product proudly bears a ‘compostable’ label is Herefordshire crisp-maker Two Farmers. The brand has recently altered its bags to increase shelf life, but in doing so has added a few weeks to the break-down time of the material, which has – in the eyes of independent testing organisation TUV – deemed the product industrially, not home-compostable.

“This shows the pitfalls with compostable packaging,” says Sean Mason, co-founder. “The problem is that TUV, which is the main accreditor for compostability, wrongly doesn’t give a tiered system of home
It either is or isn’t.”

The brand received some backlash after launching the packaging, with its customers claiming the move was a cost-saving exercise But, after a social media campaign and a few phone calls, they were brought around. “They want the extended shelf life and a small increase in composting time is acceptable to them. The problem lies with the accreditation.”

Mason has called for greater clarity to help those wanting to make a difference with their purchasing power. “To have a product that is 100% home compostable that you can’t call home compostable is madness.”

Taylor takes the view, however, that the only important piece of information for the consumer is what initial ingredients go into the packaging. “If you start with plant matter and end with something that improves the soil or has zero negative effect on it, then the timeline of complete composting is secondary.”

As long as you get your messaging right, he says, your customers will understand what you’re trying to do. Voyager has an industrial composter on site, offering the option to return any used bags for those who don’t have a home composter. 

Both brands are pioneers in their respective industries, though, proving to others that this kind of model (of business and of packaging) is not only possible, but viable – and, most importantly, sustainable. And that’s the key word for Taylor. 

“In any industry, not just food and drink, if an aspect of your business isn’t sustainable, whether that’s packaging or the product you produce, in the end, it is going to have to change.”

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