Compostable packaging needs better co-ordination in the waste management and food service sectors if it’s going to work, industry voices say.
The Packaging Forum says a recent survey of compostable packaging suppliers in New Zealand found over 100 compostable packaging projects in the last five years, with another 81 in progress and 85 more planned.
Yet little progress had been made on developing a solution for the collection and breakdown of the packaging at the scale New Zealand required.
Whittaker’s is trialling compostable packaging.
Kim Renshaw, chief executive of waste management researcher Beyond the Bin, said a number of steps needed to be made including a national collections infrastructure.
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“As public opinion has turned against plastics, many importers, manufacturers and brands have turned to compostable packaging as a promising solution,” she said.
”However, all packaging types need to end up in the right system at the end of their life to avoid causing unintended harm.”
Renshaw, who also project manages the forum’s compostable technical advisory group, said more funding, networking and increased processing infrastructure were also going to be needed if compostable packaging was going to take off.
A labelling system and an official standard for compostable packaging were also needed.
One of the big bugbears about compostable packaging is that in many cases it only breaks down if it is placed in hot enough conditions. Otherwise it can simply end up either in the environment or landfill.
Richard Fine, the Australian-based founder and sustainability director of packaging firm Biopak, said the industry couldn’t rely on the Government stepping in to solve the issue and users needed to step up.
”Compostable packaging is not a solution on its own. In order to really contribute and be part of the circular economy, all the systems surrounding that need to change and adapt as well.
”That’s where the food service industry plays a valuable role, capturing the organic waste and diverting it from landfill. Without the waste management industry, the compost industry, the food service industry all coming on board … we’re just going to struggle with an uphill battle.’’
In New Zealand, Biopak imports compostable packaging but also runs collection services in Christchurch and Auckland from retail outlets.
Fine said legislation might be needed initially to get rid of non-compostable packaging. In Australia non-compostable single use packaging is being banned in some states.
‘’I don’t think we can rely on government at this stage, much as I would like to … I think potentially what needs to happen is the food service industry really needs to step up and understand the value of compostable packaging and make those changes. It’s happening but it’s a bit slow.”
Producer responsibility will go a long way to solving the issue, Fine said.
The New Zealand Government has given the industry a short period before it brings in producer responsibility schemes, ”which I’m definitely in favour of’’.
‘’I think all industries or business that are putting packaging onto the market need to take responsibility for that material and ensure that it gets recovered.”
But it was not always easy to access to compost facilities, which could be reluctant to take the packaging for fear of environmental contamination.
”That’s why it’s so important to have standards. So currently in New Zealand there are no standards for compostable packaging, they’re a mix of European and Australia, so I guess the first step would be for New Zealand is to identify its standards and go with that.”
Fine was confident that packaging certified compostable to Australian standards would break down in a certain time period and not leave behind toxic residues.
Work was also underway here to conduct a trial on controlled circumstances to prove the downstream viability of compostable packaging.
The trial would need an environment such as a food court, which could ensure there was a ”clean waste stream,” Fine said.
”The beautiful thing about compostable packaging is that you can collect it in one bin along with the organic waste and the whole lot can be composted.”
Another avenue worth investigating was turning the packaging into biochar, a charcoal-like substance that can act as fertiliser, he said.
However, a commercial composters group says a lot of compostable packaging was rejected because it was too hard to guarantee the resulting compost was organic.
‘’Just because something is compostable doesn’t mean that it’s biological in origin. There may be petrochemical components in there, for example, which is inconsistent with the organic certification and so on,’’ Chris Purchas of the Waste Management Institute’s organic materials sector group said.
Kerbside collections were also problematic, although ‘’there are commercial composters who are willing to take materials where they’ve got a really good understanding of where that material’s come from and what they’re dealing with’’.
However, he said, it made sense for some products destined for landfill such as bin liners or fruit stickers to be compostable.
Renshaw said the next step for the Packaging Forum would be gathering data on just how much compostable packaging in New Zealand was on the market.
That would help clarify what level of investment and infrastructure was needed.
“We’re working to overcome some complex problems such as the risk of contamination of compostable packaging with other materials, the ratios of compostable packaging that can be accepted by composters compared to other compostable material, what collection infrastructure could look like and how it could be funded,” she said.