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When Should You (and Shouldn’t You) Use Compostable Packaging?

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 10/18/2021 | 4 Minute Read

In one teaspoon of healthy soil, you’ll find more organisms than there are people on earth. Keeping the ground below us healthy can trickle down into so many aspects of our lives, whether it's from the food we eat and the animals thriving in our backyard to the availability of water.

So naturally, when millions of tons of plastic waste get thrown into landfills due to discarded packaging alone, that’s going to affect the earth. Not only will it take hundreds, or possibly up to 1,000 years to decompose, but those plastics could leach harmful chemicals into our soil. It’s also a bit of a missed opportunity—food waste accounts for 8% of emissions, and if we could compost that instead, we could reduce the methane production from food sitting in a landfill and enrich the soil.

Luckily, designers can be part of the solution. One big way they can do that is by using compostable packaging for the right kinds of products—that’s right, compostable packaging isn’t the correct choice for every item. Until now, deciding on whether or not to use compostable packs has been easier said than done, but A Plastic Planet hopes to demystify this challenge, and they’re moderating a panel this Tuesday, October 19th (11 am GMT / 6 am EST).

What's more, they're releasing a report, The Compostable Conundrum, on compostable packaging and when to use it.

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“It was at a conference with a lot of different people within the waste management and bio-materials space that I asked, ‘Where is a list that helps people use this valuable material for the right purposes so that it will go into the right waste stream?’” explained Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet. “And the pushback I got was ‘Why would we do it?’ They were in sales and didn’t think it was their place to tell people what materials they should use. And I think by doing this, you’re indirectly shooting yourself in the foot.”

Just like recycling and sustainability are complicated, nuanced topics, composting sparks just as much confusion. Consumers must first determine what can be composted at home versus what should go to a facility, and then they have to hope composting programs exist in their area. At facilities, telling the difference between conventional plastic and compostable materials is a difficult task at best—so much so that some stop accepting compostable packaging.

In 2019, Seattle’s composting program—like many cities—wouldn’t take compostable packs. So even if a designer or brand owner selected what they figured was an eco-friendly packaging solution, they may still have created trash that will end up in the landfill or the ocean. And without the particular, special conditions required to break it down, that piece of packaging will still be around for a very long time.

Using research from the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Federal Public Service (FPS) Health, Food Chain Safety, and Environment, and scientific journals, A Plastic Planet’s report highlights how using compostable packaging benefits soil, reduces food waste, and helps reduce emissions. It also points out the financial benefit of compostable materials.

“At A Plastic Planet, we don’t sell stuff,” Sian said. “We sell change. And to sell change, we need to lay out very clearly why there is an environmental and economic opportunity. If you want to move business to adopt more mainstream composting materials for the right uses, then we have to point out that there is an economic opportunity.”

The Compostable Conundrum reports that a universally agreed Red & Green list to promote compostable materials for certain products could save EU States up to €1 billion every year.

Ideally, compostable materials package food items so the entire thing—both the packaging and leftover food—can go into the compost and replenish soils. When they’re used for, say, electronics or body care items, there’s a risk that non-compostable products will end up at a composting facility. That costs a lot to manage and remove. In other instances, where both compostable and non-compostable packaging materials GET used, the consumer may bundle everything together and place it in the trash. That wastes valuable compostable materials. 

“We need to start thinking about packaging as something that’s permanent,” Sian added. “And it’s permanent because we produce two billion tons of waste every single year. And where does it all go when we throw things away?”

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Clarity on when to use—and when not to use—compostable packaging will lead the way for change. Yes, compostable packaging is eco-friendly, but what it contains may not be. That is why things like ketchup packets, tea bags, or fruit nets should be made from this material, while cosmetics or clothing packs should not.

“The question always has to be, ‘Does it help get food waste into the food waste system?’ If the answer is no, then it’s probably the wrong use of compostable materials,” said Sian.

Designers are welcome to the panel this Tuesday—all they need to do is reach out to Esme at esme@aplasticplanet.com for a link to join. Sian also said to reach out anytime for the first edition of The Compostable Conundrum report. As a working draft, they want to get it in the hands of designers for insight and feedback before eventually releasing the final version.

“We live in a world where we have much more transparency, and we’re much more aware,” Sian said. “And with that transparency comes a responsibility. Designers have the responsibility to ask questions, be a bit more provocative, and push back against what you fundamentally feel is not the right answer anymore."

“You are the visioners," added Sian. "The design community is the visioners. That’s not the brand manager’s job. So how can you do that in a compelling, convincing, and aspirational way?”

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