Louis Ashworth

In today’s world, the desire to move away from conventional plastic packaging that is clearly harming our oceans and marine life has been accelerating. Nevertheless, instead of addressing the single-use waste culture at the root of this global problem, businesses have just swapped plastic packaging for seemingly better ‘compostable’ alternatives, in a like for like substitution. These new alternatives, from companies like Vegware, appear very similar to their conventional plastic cousins, but crucially come with green labels saying that they are ‘100% compostable’. This allows consumers to feel good about their ‘environmentally friendly’ purchase, and continue to behave as they always have done since the now ubiquitous throwaway lifestyle was introduced through the aggressive marketing campaigns of the 1950s.

Many of these compostable food and drink containers, are typically made with polylactic acid (PLA), a plastic like material that is derived from plant-based sources, and have quickly been introduced throughout cafés, restaurants and cafeterias throughout the UK, especially so in Cambridge, where they are seen extensively throughout the city and across the university. In my college, Pembroke, Vegware products are used extensively by the catering department, and everyone, from staff to students, are satisfied with their introduction. I can understand why. They require less CO2 emissions to produce, when compared to plastics, and are made from renewable plant sources. The use of this word ‘compostable’ suggests to the user that they naturally breakdown in any organic environment including a home compost, much like an apple core that is chucked into the soil.

However, in reality this is not the case. The fine print on the products themselves, which few bother to read, says they are certified for 'commercial composting'. This actually means that PLA-based products are certified to only breakdown under very specific industrial composting processes (in vessel composting or anaerobic digestion), requiring specialised conditions and a lengthy timescale (up to 12 weeks) to break down completely under these conditions. If you were to dispose of your PLA cup like your apple core, you would find that much like a conventional plastic cup, it would remain in its current form for a very long time, causing the same environmental problems as the plastics that it is trying to replace. In fact, a controlled study found that over a course of one year in ambient sea water conditions, PLA did not degrade at all, suggesting a very slow degradation rate under regular conditions.

You might think it is not a big problem because the Vegware you use is sent away to be industrially composted through the food waste stream, right? Wrong! The biggest problem is that across the UK, waste facilities that are adequately able to process PLA compostable plastics are woefully lacking (currently only available in 38% of the UK) and this means that in most councils across Britain, the Vegware you thought was being processed into compost and used to enrich the soils in which your food is grown, is actually sent straight to the landfill along other ‘general waste,’ as recommended by Vegware.

The complexity of the situation becomes even more apparent in Cambridge, where the City Council, who handles a majority of the waste collection across the city, sends its collected waste to Amey’s Waste Management Park in Waterbeach. What I learnt is that this facility is unable to process Vegware because its vessel composting process is too fast for Vegware to breakdown. However, their capabilities for recycling plastics are some of the best in the country, meaning almost all plastic products can be recycled in Cambridge, including those products where it currently states “Not currently recycled,” (as this refers to the national average). What this means is that at the current moment, almost all the products that were replaced with Vegware across Cambridge could have been recycled successfully, but the new replacement products end up directly in the landfill. These concerns about the current viability of compostable packaging have been shared in a recent report by the UK’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee’s report in which they conclude that “Although industrially compostable plastic packaging is appealing as an alternative to conventional plastics, the general waste management infrastructure to manage it is not yet fit for purpose.”

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Once I discovered this through email exchanges with the Cambridge City Council, I was very keen to tell everyone I knew about it: other May Ball committee members, college staff, colleagues, friends and the Vegware companies themselves. What I learnt from these further discussions was equally revealing: there was evidently a lack of understanding around what Vegware and similar compostable packaging is (it is not recyclable), what its environmental benefits are (it is only beneficial if it can be correctly processed upon disposal) and how it should be disposed and is currently disposed as (it generally joins the general waste, or contaminates recyclable waste due to a lack of suitable industrial composting facilities and awareness).

The reactions I received upon revealing the truth about these products ranged from utter shock and a sense of being cheated, especially given the way these products are marketed as being intrinsically the better, greener option that will help ‘save the planet’ from ourselves. What I discovered echoed concerns in EFRA’s report, which stated that “we are concerned that consumers are confused about how to dispose of compostable packaging, particularly if there is no dedicated compostable waste bin available. This could result in contamination of dry recycling as well as littering.”

The most shocking part of this is that Vegware, one of the main companies behind these products, are clearly aware of this lack of infrastructure across the country given that they have set up their Vegware collections close to their UK offices in Bristol and Edinburgh but they do not push to communicate this clearly to their customers or end-users, who are left with entirely the wrong impression about these products. The information is on their website, if one knows where to look for it (Vegware recommends that their products are thrown into general waste if no industrial composting route exists), but which consumer is likely to read over that before disposing of their used PLA cup into dry mixed recycling? Of course, there is a financial incentive for them to not disclose this publicly as it hurts their bottom line, but given the environmental credentials that the company was seemingly founded upon, it seems downright hypocritical for them not to make a bigger effort to inform their customers about their products.

Compostable packaging has potential in certain specific situations where food contamination cannot be avoided and thus recycling or reuse is not possible, such as for tea bags, sandwich boxes, food prep gloves, drink cups, among others. EFRA’s report concludes that they do not support a “general increase in the use of industrially compostable packaging at this stage” but they do make the case that in certain situations compostable packaging could be suitable, especially within a ‘closed-loop’ environment, such as sporting events or in catering facilities, where there is a dedicated disposal and collection service. However, even in these cases, this implementation must be accompanied by “robust communication to avoid contamination.”

Due to the widespread use of Vegware in Cambridge colleges and the University Catering Services, it would thus be feasible to implement a functioning closed loop disposal and collection into cafeteria kitchens, from which they can be taken to a dedicated industrial composting facility. As a matter of fact, there currently exists a suitable facility for processing compostable plastic nearby Cambridgeshire, Envar, but they do not operate a collection service and due to their scale of operation can only cater for large amounts of waste at a time. To deal with this, an initiative is currently being developed through the Cambridge Food Hub to arrange for bespoke compostable packaging waste collection across colleges and businesses in Cambridge that can then be delivered all at once to Envar for processing.

So what does this mean for your May Ball preparations, for which I had initially thought that serving all drinks in Vegware cups instead of single-use plastic cups would provide the most environmentally friendly option. Due to the lack of processing opportunities available to us in Cambridge, for a one-off event and the extensive plastic recycling facilities available through the council, we instead decided to continue with single-use plastic cups and focus on ensuring that these are correctly recycled through the implementation of novel waste sorting stations at the event, that allowed cups to be emptied and sorted by staff as the event went on, thus minimising any contamination and ensuring that diversion from the landfill is maximised. Through this approach, we were able to achieve an overall recycling rate of 70%, which is significantly higher than national averages for such events. The alternative with using Vegware would have meant all these recycled cups would have ended up directly in the landfill, even if the guests might have viewed that as the more sustainable option.


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In addition, due to the current misunderstandings around these products, compostable plastics are likely to cause more issues for waste disposal than any perceived benefits from their production. If the adoption of these products is to continue at current rates, we need the waste processing facilities to catch up and for a wide scale awareness campaign around these products to take place.

The best way for this would be to have this information clearly expressed on the packaging itself, at the point of use, where it is currently largely lacking. However, as concluded by the EFRA report, the solution, in most situations, to our use of plastic is simply reducing the amount of waste generated and this requires a fundamental shift away from single-use products towards reusable products. This is not a foreign concept to the older generations, for whom the reuse of products was second nature and a necessity of limited supplies but has become an almost concept in our modern, industrialised societies. As such, it is not a leap forward in new types of products that we need but rather we need to adopt the ways of the past to build the sustainable society that we so desperately need.