COMPOSTABLE PACKAGING: DISCOVER ITS BENEFITS
Compostable packaging, with the benefits of its use, is emerging globally as one of the most exciting sustainability solutions, even though its full potential has not yet been achieved. The premises are all there:
• During the last European Bioplastics conference, MEP Maria Spyraki described compostable bioplastics as an “interesting and credible” contribution to the realization of the circular economy.
• Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in its New Plastics Economy, has included compostable packaging in the path to material circularity. More than 450 companies worldwide have joined the New Plastics Economy.
• The trend of packaging manufacturers is a greater attention to the ecological impact and respect for the environment, with increasingly widespread use of renewable raw materials from sustainable sources and of compostable and bio-based bioplastics.
The common goal is to ensure the creation of circular products, from the renewability of resources to the recovery of materials. Compostable packaging is not the universal solution, but in the right applications it constitutes an effective alternative to traditional plastic and contributes to the consolidation of the biological sector of the economy: the circular bioeconomy.
THE WORLD OF COMPOSTABILITY
• is made up of materials of organic origin
• it can be recovered through composting, transforming itself into a new resource and reducing the impact on the environment as much as possible.
• it is a biodegradable packaging and during the composting process it completely decomposes producing carbon dioxide, biomass and water.
Let’s go deeper into the definition and clarify two points:
- Not all biodegradable bioplastics are also compostable!
- Compostable biomaterial is one of many types of biodegradable materials, which is capable of disintegrating and fully biodegrading within a certain time and under controlled conditions.
- The so-called oxo-degradable products are not biodegradable and compostable.
- Oxo-degradable plastic is traditional plastic to which additives have been added to accelerate its fragmentation into tiny fractions.
- As also established by the European Commission, there is no evidence that oxo-degradable plastic undergoes complete biodegradation in a reasonable time.
In future articles we will look at the differences between biodegradable and compostable plastics in more detail. In the meantime, “check your label!“, and go on reading this article on compostable packaging.
COMPOSTABLE PACKAGING AND ITS VALUE FOR FOOD PACKAGING
Some media coverage portrays compostable products as an innovation suitable for all applications and the ultimate solution to plastic pollution … but this is incorrect. In this article we will try to shed some light on this, starting with the broader vision: the value of the circular bioeconomy – read on!
COMPOSTABLE ECO-PACKAGING IN THE CIRCULAR BIOECONOMY
Bioplastic, and in particular biodegradable and compostable bioplastic certified according to the EN13432 standard, fits well into the agenda of the European Green Deal. This initiative recognizes among the priority actions:
• the use of climate-neutral materials,
• the promotion of technological innovation aimed at the circular bioeconomy,
• improving the recovery of organic waste.
In Italy, the collection of organic waste has achieved a great acceleration thanks to the introduction of the compostable bag, which has allowed for more efficient waste management.
Similarly, in certain applications, compostable packaging can help channel food waste into the correct disposal stream for composting. The alternative? When not separated properly, food residues end up in landfills.
A waste, isn’t it?
In addition to food waste itself, organic waste in landfills is a great source of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. A not indifferent climatic impact.
The use of compostable bioplastic in certain food packaging applications allows the recovery of food residues more effectively. This avoids their disposal in landfills and brings a greater organic intake to the composting plant. Think of coffee capsules and tea bags: even after use, they contain a preponderant amount of product, which risks being wasted.
If, on the other hand, they are packaged in compostable materials, these products can be more easily recovered in the biowaste bin, together with their packaging.
FROM WASTE TO RESOURCE: COMPOST
What happens to the organic fraction of separate waste collection when it arrives at the composting plant? The waste is transformed into a new resource, compost, a natural fertilizer that helps the regeneration of the soil. One of the most circular benefits of compostable packaging.
In the composting plant, the bio-based components of compostable packaging, which are biodegradable, release organic components, enriching the compost with an additional source of carbon. In addition, the compostable packaging acts as a structuring element for the compost pile, which in this way “breathes” better and works more efficiently.
The product of the process is compost, which is used in agriculture and horticulture as a soil conditioner: it acts as an excellent natural fertilizer that enriches the soil with new and precious organic substance. The bioeconomy cycle closes and regenerates.
Find more information on compost in our articles in the Compostability Magazine; read on to find out more about compostable packaging.
A CLEANER SEPARATE COLLECTION
Foreign elements are very often found in the organic fraction of the waste. These elements cannot be treated in composting plants because they would not biodegrade within the useful time of the process. Most of the time these are traditional plastics mistakenly or carelessly placed in the organic waste container.
Identifying the most frequent foreign materials and replacing them with compostable solutions helps reduce contamination and give composting plants a cleaner collection. We are about to discover another benefit.
In ITALY in 2018 the organic fraction of waste was 7 million tons (source ISPRA). From the analyses performed by CIC (Italian Composting Association) it emerged that the contaminations are mainly made up of plastic, which represents 3.1% of the total weight of the organic fraction.
The consequences of this contamination are twofold: the quality of the resulting compost is compromised; and process costs increase, because the composter has to carry out inspections and separations. And every time a piece of plastic is removed, it also drags a part of food waste with it, which will be sent to the landfill.
How does the plastic get in the organic waste bin? It can happen easily: for example, cleaning a plate of leftovers, without noticing an adhesive label or the fragments of a packet of snacks.
The packaging products most frequently found as contaminants can be re-designed in compostable bioplastic, so as to improve the quality and efficiency of compost production.
A SIMPLER LIFE FOR CONSUMERS
The consumers most careful for the environment know that for proper recycling the packaging must be cleaned of excess food residues. Sometimes this involves inconvenient separation maneuvers. In these cases, the use of compostable packaging could simplify our life and provide an incentive to do separate collection more willingly, correctly and without problems. Useful, right?
The use of compostable packaging for food makes it possible to dispose of the food waste together with its package. This helps to simplify collection, not only at home but also and especially when you are indoors such as in stadiums, airports or canteens. Similarly, a compostable approach to packaging for catering and takeaway products, which after use can be soiled with food residues, allows for better recovery of leftovers and wrappers. Furthermore, consumers receive an unambiguous and simplified message on how to sort their waste.
Communicating compostability: what consumers appreciate
Let’s open a parenthesis. To convey the message of sustainability in a practical and clear way, the packaging itself can and must be a messenger, through ecolabels and certifications. A recent research by Nielsen shows that one in three Italians read this information before buying. 23% of consumers make their choices by evaluating the characteristics of the material used in the packaging. Ecolabels help the consumer to correctly manage post-consumption waste, and certifications play a fundamental role in strengthening consumer confidence.
The compostability certifications attest the product’s suitability for industrial composting according to the criteria of the EN13432 standard. Accredited bodies carry out the tests and issue the compostability certification to the producers, who can exhibit the corresponding logo on the packages. In this way, consumers are offered a compass to guide their purchasing and consumption choices while respecting the environment.
RECYCLING OR ORGANIC RECYCLING?
As mentioned, biodegradable and compostable bioplastics and composting are not the absolute solutions to the problem of plastic pollution. As the European directives teach, the waste hierarchy favors 1.the reduction, 2. the reuse and 3. the recycling of packaging materials.
When it is not possible to prevent a material from reaching the end of its life, it can only be recycled. However, this is not always possible; compostability therefore represents a path of functional recovery. We are talking about organic recycling, another virtue of our protagonists.
Traditional plastics are versatile, light and resistant. As reported by Corepla (National Consortium for the Collection, Recycling and Recovery of Plastic Packaging), Italy recycles about 44% of plastic packaging placed on the market.
Recycling rates still need to improve a lot to reach the 2030 targets, which the European Union has set at 55% for plastic packaging. This is why many companies are working on the re-design of packaging, using materials and configurations suitable for recycling, without wasting resources.
However, some packaging categories do not or cannot find the way to effective recycling. For example, because they use a mix of different and non-separable materials; or because they are heavily contaminated with food residues.
A significant contribution to the increase in recycling rates may derive from the replacement, in some non-recyclable products, of plastics of fossil origin with bioplastics from renewable sources. It is thus possible to increase the recyclability of certain types of packaging by sending them to organic recycling, which contributes to the achievement of European targets.
THE BENEFITS OF COMPOSTABLE PACKAGING: LET’S SEE THEM ALL
In summary, compostable packaging:
1. helps limit the amount of food waste that ends up in landfills;
2. contributes to the production of quality compost;
3. reduces plastic contamination in separate waste collection;
4. creates a simplified experience for consumers;
5. can be an alternative solution to non-recyclable packaging.
Today, anyone who designs compostable products (and packaging) must know and understand the actual convenience of their use, their environmental impacts and the local availability of composting plants. The challenge is complex but innovation has made a lot of progress, and today new sustainable solutions have become a reality at the service of industry and the circular economy.
You can find examples of compostable packaging already on the market today at this link:
Our product is among them – find it on itscompostable.com!
Want to read more articles? Go to our Magazine!
Our project was born from the union of five Italian technological excellence that work in synergy for the innovation of packaging in a sustainable and circular perspective: Novamont, leader in the production of bioplastics, Ticinoplast, technological innovators of blown film for the packaging market flexible, SAES Coated Films, specialized in the water-based deposition of high barrier coatings, Sacchital Group, specialists in eco-design for flexible packaging and IMA Flexible Packaging Hub, designers and manufacturers of machines for packaging with flexible film.