The linear model of consumption for traditional packaging materials is your basic take, make and waste cycle.
The raw materials – usually fossil-based plastics – are sourced and manufactured by the cheapest means possible, with little to no thought given to how the material will be disposed of when no longer useful. The final resting place for this material is probably in landfill, or at best in a food-contaminated and low-value recycling stream. Literally and figuratively speaking, this model is rubbish!
The benefit of using compostable packaging materials is they are designed with the circular economy in mind. Made from plant-based renewable materials, compostable packaging is able to live beyond the waste part of the cycle, re-entering the resource stream as nutrient-rich compost, improving our soil and at the same time sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
So – can we break it down?
The problem with traditional single-use food service items is they are often unable to be recovered or recycled due to food contamination. This means the packaging and the organic food waste both end up in our general-waste bins. Compostable packaging allows a single collection of waste, which leads us to the added benefit – reducing the environmental impacts of organic materials in landfill. In Australia alone, the food industry generates 1,000,000 tonnes of organic waste – with most of it going to landfill.
Organic waste in landfill is starved of oxygen and when it breaks down it emits the greenhouse gas methane. Methane is 28 times more harmful for our atmosphere than carbon, and if the overall contribution of gases from landfill were to be considered as a country, it would rank third in the world behind China and the USA. Composting our food waste along with our compostable packaging has a massive positive impact and is a key strategy to combat climate change. In addition, composting is a process that sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and locks it in the soil.
Plant-based materials are not only compostable, they are renewable. Bagasse, for example, is a material made from sugarcane pulp – a byproduct of the sugarcane industry. Rather than being burnt, this material can be recovered and have a useful life in our food service industry before being recovered, composted, and returned to the soil to provide nutrients for – wait for it – more plants.
Compared to plant-based materials, fossil-fuel-based plastics are with us for a very, very long time. Whether they end up in landfill or our oceans, these toxic materials do not easily break down, and growing evidence of the presence of plastics throughout our ecosystems – including within our own bodies – is reason enough to give them a miss.
Ecosystems around the world are under extreme pressure, with overpopulation and pollution key causes. Surveys of biodiversity paint a very grim picture indeed, but composting is one way in which we can help restore the balance.
Compost is beneficial to soils, plant and animal life in many ways:
For these reasons capturing and composting our organic waste is the key to creating a healthy circular economy. The impact of soil erosion and the degradation of viable farmland globally is a threat to our future food security; composting can help reverse this trend and create a valuable resource to establish sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices.
Packaging used in the food service industry usually ends up being fairly contaminated with food residues. This makes recycling impractical, if not impossible, especially for fibre-based products. In addition, scraping food waste off packaging into another bin isn’t always everyone’s priority, which results in both ending up in landfill.
Using compostable packaging for serving food means that at the end of a meal, everything can go in a single bin, the organics one. This allows to capture a lot more food waste and to reduce contamination in other recycling streams.
In fact, there is an opportunity to compost a larger portion of the 1,000,000 tonnes of organic waste generated by the foodservice and hospitality sector in Australia while simultaneously recovering and recycling an estimated 10 billion individual single-use foodservice disposables!
So whether it be for convenience, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to improve soil health or to fight plastic pollution, compostable packaging is the future of the food service industry.