Sustainable Packaging Series: Compostables


Corporations have commitments to make their packaging recyclable, reusable or composable over the next decade.  However, compostables seems to be tagged on with little explanation. It often appears to be the preferred solution for countries without recycling systems, so when packaging ends up littering land and sea it will eventually disappear.  The problem is that most composable plastics require industrial composters to do their work and left to their own devices in the natural environment can take up to 50 years to decompose. So, this is only a solution when it is part of a system. Whilst we can see dual systems being put in place in countries with advanced sustainability infrastructures, getting nations at the beginning of their journey to set up dual recycling and composting systems together doesn’t seem sensible- twice the investment, twice the required consumer education and adoption.

 However, in communities with established recycling systems, composting offers interesting possibilities. As recycling systems increasingly handle the larger volumes of plastic and paper, we will need to tackle the remainder and see, by increments, how we can further reduce our waste. Whilst composting presents some significant technical challenges it does have the advantage that it can work with instinctive human behaviours, avoiding the very considerable challenges of shifting consumer habits for the better.

 In a recent in-home visits of tissue users in Milan our designers saw people putting their used tissues into their organic matter bins. However, most tissues contain additives and are therefore not actually composable. Instinctively however, soiled tissues should and ought to be thrown in the composting, so working with this natural behaviour and making them so would seem a real opportunity. Teabag disposal is another behavioural opportunity which Unilever among others are working hard to support.  They are full of wet messy tea and are therefore instinctively slung into the organic waste, but the bags and string are usually plastic, and are held together with a metal staple- none of which are composable or recyclable. However, solving the technical challenge, whilst difficult, will be far easier than changing the associated consumer habit.

 Observation of consumers in their homes and on-the-go reveals many such opportunities to piggyback off of established routines. For example, most food packaging has a recyclable main container, but is sealed with a non-recyclable plastic film which goes straight into the bin. So, wouldn't it be great if it was compostable and could go into the organic waste with the accompanying food scrapes after the meal preparation? Moving from 0 to 90% waste reduction requires broad systems and education to be put in place. The last 10% will inevitably require ingenuity and design thinking to do the final fine tuning and is likely to provide a useful role for compostables.

NB Composable and biodegradable are often seems to be interchangeable and both mean the breaking down of material by biological means, however composting turns material into compost that puts nutrients back into the ground whereas biodegrading does not necessarily do so, but the intention is that the result is always safe and nontoxic.