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Single-use: we all know the challenges, but let’s explore a compostable solution. Even with a major shift to reusables, some disposables will always be needed. By choosing compostables, foodservice businesses can actively drive change in Australian recycling. Here’s why businesses should consider going compostable.
Compostable disposables are designed to be recycled in an industrial composting facility together with food waste. That means there’s no need for sorting, and the compostable cup, lid, burger box, knife and napkin can all go together without removing the ketchup and leftover chips. An extra bonus is that once food and disposables share one bin, other dry recycling bins are cleaner and easier to recycle.
Compostability isn’t best for all situations. For example, Vegware wouldn’t make compostable water bottles, as PET plastic already has a developed recycling infrastructure. But for food-contaminated disposables, compostability is a sensible solution.
Combining plastic and card in foodservice packaging creates massive recycling challenges, as highlighted by the recent coffee cup recycling debate. Food contamination is inevitable, so the result is incineration or landfill. For disposables destined for serving food, it makes sense to use materials that can be recycled together with food. With compostable disposables, food isn’t contamination, it’s a vital ingredient in the composting process.
Everyone likes the word ‘recyclable’, but here’s some news which highlights the real challenges of recycling used ‘recyclable’ packaging.
Australia exports an annual average of 619,000 tonnes of materials to China, with no idea if it actually gets recycled. China has been a major recycling destination for many countries, but over the years discovered the materials it receives isn't good enough quality to recycle. Since January 2018, China has banned imports of household plastics, and only accepts cardboard and paper with less than 0.5% contamination. Other Asian countries are considering similar bans, to avoid becoming a dumping ground for unrecyclable waste.
What’s the learning here? That in reality, card + plastic + food isn’t recyclable.
Vegware makes catering disposables from plants, not plastic. After use, they are designed for industrial composting with food waste. Vegware replaces conventional plastics with various plant-based materials. For example, PLA is a compostable material made from plants. PLA replaces the plastic in coffee cup linings or sandwich windows, and it’s the clear material in our cold cups and deli containers. Our hot cup lids and cutlery are made of a high-heat version of PLA.
Reclaimed sugarcane fibre is another practical material we use for our clamshells, plates and bowls. Known as bagasse, it performs really well, keeping heat in but not trapping condensation. Plus, it’s renewable, a reclaimed by-product of the sugar industry.
Same process, different breakdown speeds. Forget the term biodegradable, as it tells us nothing about timescales (wood is biodegradable, but a log cabin can stand for generations). Compostable means that packaging can break down in under 12 weeks in composting conditions, and is therefore suitable for industrial composting.
Compostable packaging needs to be in composting conditions in order to compost. Industrial composting creates the perfect balance of microbes, moisture and warmth, so that compostable packaging can be included in food waste recycling. Home composting conditions vary with the skill of the householder, so we don’t make any claims there, but there have been successful trials using hot compost bins.
Compostables face exactly the same issue as all disposables on-the-go: how to capture it once it’s walked out the door? Schemes collecting any on-the-go recycling (including plastic-lined cups), depend on consumers finding the right bin, and not accidentally contaminating it with the wrong materials. The right ‘binfrastrucure’ is needed, but those bins need to be used correctly. That means clear messaging and consumer education is vital to make sure what is collected is good enough to be recycled.
The thing is, exactly the same challenges (binfrastructure + behaviour) apply to all recycling – whether that’s plastic-lined cups, plastic bottles, or compostable disposables. Compostables are not the enemy. We’re fighting the same challenges, with the same goal: better recycling.