Keynsham Voice June column: Compostable food packaging – revolution or rubbish?

A recent survey by sustainability charity Hubbub found that the UK’s growing ‘lunch on the go’ habit is generating nearly 11 billion items of packaging waste a year, much of which is not recycled. The waste ranges from sandwich cartons, napkins, crisp packets, takeaway containers and snack wrappers.

Reading about the survey got me thinking about compostable food and drink packaging. Some companies are now offering plant-based bioplastic (PLA) food packaging and coffee cups, and many independent coffee shops (and even the House of Commons!) have switched to them, believing that they’re better for the environment.

Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Most of the PLA-coated coffee cups and PLA food packaging are only compostable in a specialist composter, of which there are 18 for the entire UK. Even if you live in an area where your local authority has access to this specialist kit (spoiler alert, B&NES doesn’t), it’s likely that your cup will end up in landfill. Why? Because waste sorters (both people and machines) can’t tell the difference between a conventional or compostable cup. They’ll just see it as food packaging and send it to landfill or to be burnt.

The answer to the problem of our take-away rubbish lies in the waste hierarchy, a tool developed to minimise waste, protect the environment and conserve resources. We’re all told to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ but what isn’t so obvious in that slogan is the hierarchy – first reduce, then reuse, and finally if it’s impossible to do the first two, recycle.

In terms of food and drink packaging, the waste hierarchy is simple. Make your own lunch (reduce), and if you can’t, bring your own reusable coffee cup and food container to your local sandwich shop (reuse). It does take a bit of forward planning, but I think that’s a small price to pay for cleaning up our planet, don’t you?

If you’d like to read more about why bioplastics aren’t the answer to food packaging waste, Bristol based organisation City to Sea has a great FAQ on it. Visit www.citytosea.org.uk/bioplastics

Published in Keynsham Voice, June 2019, www.keynshamvoice.co.uk

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