Compostables - a complex issue

Op ed

Alright, I’ve got something to say. Compostable packaging and other items – they're everywhere now, which is great, right? Well, only if they're being composted!
Compostable packaging includes paper, cardboard (also recyclable), bamboo, other woods and bioplastics (which cause the most confusion). These days it’s pretty easy (although not always cheap) to get compostable toothbrushes, coffee cups, mailing bags, cling wrap, phone cases, pretty much anything! But it’s not the miracle cure it’s made out to be. Let’s break it down (ha!):
1. It’s only better if it’s actually being composted at its end of life. Throwing it in landfill doesn’t solve anything! A prime example is compostable bin liners. A compostable product destined for landfill. It doesn’t make sense.
2. Compostable ain’t compostable. Some items are home compostable, whereas many actually require a commercial composter (which expose them to intense heat) to actually break them down. Many compostable takeaway coffee cups fall into this category, which is problematic – and most get put in landfill anyway (however you are avoiding the extraction of finite fossil fuels).
3. Is it plant-based or still plastic? Things can be compostable, but still plastic! Look for PLA, PHA, PBS and Starch blends if you want plant-based, compostable materials (as per the diagram).
4. What is it made from, and how is that material created? Find out if the compostable material is made from something grown specifically for that purpose (and therefore displacing crops grown to eat, or land for biodiversity), or from agricultural waste/by-product (which is much better!)
Throwing compostable packaging or items into landfill is basically the same as throwing food waste into landfill. It creates methane and other greenhouse gases as it decomposes due to the anerobic conditions (lack of oxygen), or simply doesn’t decompose at all.
In the takeaway food and drink scene, cafes (and other businesses) are able to sign up to BioPak’s Compost Club. They will collect the commercially compostable packaging and ensure it is properly composted. The closest place I know you can do this is Two Hounds Espresso at Northgate. You can see where else on the BioPak website.
It’s a bit chicken-and-egg: do you wait for the waste industry to develop the infrastructure to process plastic alternatives, or do you make the products first to encourage them to act? There are arguments both ways, and we clearly need the industries to work together.
Most people who buy compostable alternatives are trying to do the right thing. But the main issue is confusion over these issues, and green washing. I regularly get bamboo toothbrushes placed in my TerraCycle collection box, which is a clear signal to me that people are trying to do the right thing, but don’t actually understand the life cycle of products, and how different materials are created and disposed of. And that’s a failing of the way we are influenced to consume products, and a lack of education by the companies selling us products, through ineffective information on packaging etc.
Take a moment to rethink the compostable alternatives you use and check:
1. Am I composting the item at end of life?
2. Is it a home compostable material? (Look for the certification logo)
3. Is it compostable (not biodegradable plastic)?
4. What is it made of, and how is it made?, and most importantly,
5. Do I actually need it at all , or is there a reusable alternative?
This is really just the tip of the iceberg of a hugely complex issue. Packaging, organic waste, product life cycles, waste management, and as you may be able to tell – these meaty issues are really where my heart lies.
I recommend checking out the following for more quality information:
The Australasian Bioplastic Association (who certify bioplastics, and home/ commercial compostable items in Australia and are the source of the two pictures):
Boomerang Alliance guides:
SMH article:
A great story about a female inventor/entrepreneur in this space:
BioPak’s Compost Club:
Commercial Composting Facilities in Australia accepting BioPak:

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