Waste charity Wrap states that just six per cent of soft plastic packaging (such as bags and films) is recycled in the UK – and recycling rates are currently falling. ‘Zero to landfill’ more often means export to a questionable fate in a developing country, or incineration, while a new investigation found recently that collections of ‘recyclable’ soft plastic essentially go nowhere.
So, it was surprising to hear fellow veg box business Abel & Cole announce last week that they are abandoning compostable plastic packaging in favour of non-compostable, arguing that some compostable packaging fails to break down.
The difference between various ‘sustainable’ plastic alternatives is complex, and nightmarishly hard to communicate. There are several types of degradable plastic: oxydegradable (still sometimes peddled as a solution, but just breaks down into microplastics and really should be banned); compostable (requires industrial temperatures of up to 70 degrees in the compost heap to break down); and home compostable (a legal standard meaning that it will break down quickly at ambient temperatures). We use only home compostable materials, have done many trials and much work with our customers, and are confident that our packaging breaks down with no significant residue. Indeed, I compost everything our customers return myself, and use it to grow more veg.
There is a danger of compostable plastic polluting the recycling stream, but this depends on management – and as virtually no soft plastic is recycled anyway, it seems like a questionable argument. If added to other compostable kitchen waste, because it looks like regular plastic, there is a danger that the whole batch will be rejected for composting and go to landfill – which is why we ask our customers, if they cannot compost themselves, to return the packaging to us.
In reality, it is impossible for any business to implement a well-managed cradle-to-grave lifecycle for our packaging when there are over 30 different kerbside recycling systems across the country. The government has abdicated responsibility to the marketplace, and the result – despite a huge amount of effort and good will from dutiful citizens and some businesses – is confusion and chaos. As environment minister, Michael Gove promised us a unified kerbside recycling system; another to add to a long list of lies.
Perhaps most significantly, home compostable plastic is three times the price of conventional plastic. For Riverford, if you add the cost of sorting and composting what you send back to us, this amounts to £0.7m per year, or 21p per delivery. Should we give up and pocket the difference?
Home compostable plastic may not be the right solution for all businesses, but it is right for us. While our government fails to provide a unified kerbside recycling policy, we will continue to support this choice, and ask our customers to support it too – which we believe they do. Adding our packaging to the 290,000 tonnes of conventional soft plastic packaging thrown away every year in the UK, 94 per cent of which goes to landfill, incineration, or into our oceans, would be a step backwards in the fight against plastic pollution.
For more info on why Riverford believes in home compostable plastic, click here.
Click here for a guide to the different types of compostable plastic.