Sustainable Packaging: Is there a solution? Part 1

As the global plastic problem grows, both consumers and companies are looking for alternative packaging solutions. 

Despite the pollution problem currently looming, there is hope.  All over the world people, communities and companies are working hard to find a solution and make a difference. Here in New Zealand, Chantal Organics is part of that hope, committed to finding a long-term resolution to sustainable packaging that will benefit our shores, as well as the planet as a whole. 

What is sustainable packaging?

 With all the buzz around sustainable packaging, a good place to start is to clarify what it is.  Sustainable packaging is that which reduces the ecological footprint at every stage of the packages’ life. It has been made from sustainable materials, using energy from renewable sources and is fully recyclable or compostable – completing the cycle of its life with as little impact on the environment as possible.  It relies on both the producer and consumer to do their part.

Clearing up the confusion around labelling

Many people consider packaging to be sustainable when they see the words biodegradable, degradable and compostable. And in certain situations, this may be true. Here is a quick summary of what each of these words mean, how they affect the environment and how to dispose of them properly.

Packaging can be broken down into 2 categories: non-compostable and compostable. 
Non-compostable packaging 

  1. Degradable. This plastic is made from a fossil fuel base, with an additive that makes it break down into smaller pieces when exposed to oxygen and sunlight. These small pieces are called microplastics and if they are left on land or sea, they enter the food chain. Therefore, degradable material must be disposed of in a landfill. It cannot be composted or recycled. 
  2. Biodegradable.  In the right conditions, this material may break down into water, carbon dioxide and biomass. The Biodegradable label must specify the environment required and the length of time the biodegradation will take. Without this specific information provided so appropriate actions can be taken, it must go in a landfill. 

Compostable packaging Compostable means the packaging material will break down into water, carbon dioxide and biomass in the right conditions, in a comparatively short period of time. 

  1. Home compostable.  This material can be added to your home composting system and providing the right conditions are met, it will break down into water, carbon dioxide and biomass.  It must be labelled with a home compostable certification. For effective home composting the correct ratio of green waste (food and garden waste) to brown waste (leaves, sawdust, compostable packaging) must be used in conjunction with oxygen. A sealed landfill will not provide these required conditions; therefore, this compostable material should not go into a landfill. It also cannot be recycled. 
  2. Commercially compostable. This material requires the specific conditions of a composting facility (in particular the high temperatures) to breakdown. It must be labelled with the industrial composting certification. A sealed landfill will not provide these required conditions; therefore, this compostable material should not go into a landfill. It also cannot be recycled. 
The Compostable Conundrum

Compostable packaging looks to be an appealing answer. One day it’s here, storing our muesli, the next day it’s disappearing in our compost heap. While this sounds ideal, the whole lifecycle of this packaging needs to be considered. The compostable packaging solution relies on the end consumer to get the packaging where it needs to be, in either a functioning backyard compost or composting facility. Before we rejoice in the benefits of compostable packaging, there are obstacles that need to be overcome. 

  1. Do most Kiwi households have composts?  And are these composts fit to deal with the growing amount of home compostable items? Currently half of what Auckland households send to landfill is compostable!  Learn how a landfill works and why compostable packaging will never compost in a landfill. 
  2. Are there adequate composting facilities available in NZ? There are only seven commercial composting facilities in NZ that accept compostable packaging from the public. Find out if there is one near you. If so, how do you get your compostable packaging to the facility? Unfortunately, if this is not possible, your packaging needs to be disposed of in a landfill. 
  3. Do commercial composters want compostable packaging? Compostable packaging can completely disappear, but it adds no nutritional value to compost. Therefore, commercial composters are concerned that compostable materials could devalue the compost they send to market.  
  4. Compostable material can contaminate recycling.  Compostable PLA material and plastic PET material look very similar, making it easy to misplace it in the wrong bin. If this happens, one compostable bag can pollute a whole batch of recyclable PET, making it unusable. Some composting facilities will not accept compostable packaging due to the risk of non-compostable items inadvertently included.

New Zealand councils have unanimously agreed that until the technology improves to enable non-compostable plastics to be easily identified and removed, current and future council-provided kerbside food and green waste collections will not accept compostable packaging

While compostable packaging is a proactive and innovative idea, looking at the full life cycle of this packaging, indicates that it is not sustainable within the current systems in New Zealand.  So, what is the solution? Here in New Zealand and around the world, people are working hard to find one. In the meantime, every little bit helps. Each plastic bag you don’t use. Every bottle you recycle. Together we will make a difference. 

Find out what’s next in Part 2 of “Sustainable packaging: Is there a solution?” to find out what is currently being done to support sustainability in New Zealand, how Chantal Organics is committed to being involved in finding a solution and what you can do to make a difference.