The problem with compostable packaging | IncaFé Organic Coffee


The problem with compostable packaging

Posted by Joseph Verbeek on
The problem with compostable packaging

Why are we changing from compostable packaging to recyclable packaging

Good packaging for coffee is very important - see our blog.

We are upset as anyone else to see and hear about plastics in our environment and we wanted to do something about it by developing compostable packaging back in 2012. It stopped us from ramping up our retail as we wanted to offer better packaging. Although question marks arose along the way we wanted to believe there was a better way for packaging by going compostable.

Over the years we have searched and used the best materials in the market suitable for home composting. Only by 2019 we found the best compostable solution. However we are now moving away from home-compostable packaging and start using recyclable packaging. The main 3 reasons for change are the following:

  • lack of full certification of home compostable coffee packaging
  • reduced greenhouse gas emissions
  • no competition with food sources and contamination of arable land

Home composting versus industrial composting

When we started there was no differentiation in composting but after a while composting was broadly split in industrial and home composting. Officially there is no standard in NZ even though Australia has a standard. Both types need to go through extensive testing under auspices of only a few selected certifiers eg TUV. Industrial compostable products will not easily compost in a home compost heap or when ending up in the environment. Home compostable products will compost easily in an industrial plant and relatively easy in nature but not as fast as people expect. It is not that it gets easily eaten or digested by animals or microbes like an edible coffee cup. So home compostable is the much better standard but the testing is also longer and more complex.

A Difficult Certification Process

As explained in our blog, coffee film is made up of different layers that get laminated. The materials we use in our packaging are individually certified for home composting, but it leaves one problem. The printed laminate of the various layers is not certified. The process of certification is very lengthy (18 months) and costly. The standard for home-compostable plastic is in fact not a material standard but more like a testing protocol for a mono-bioplastic. Scenarios like kraft paper on bioplastic or bioplastic laminates are not covered. It means that if a laminate gets approved under this standard, the smallest change eg change of manufacturer, change of component in an adhesive or ink, thickness changes etc., should be re-tested and reassessed by certifying bodies. This is just not practical and there is the risk that after all that time and cost it will not pass. This is the reason why you see no (fully) certified home compostable coffee packaging. We have pushed different suppliers to do it but they are not doing it. This alone is a concern to us. Without certification one cannot vouch that the materials will meet all the requirements of international home compostable standards despite apparent good results in the compost bin. The fact that we cannot get full certification is for us one reason to discontinue.

Compostable Packaging is not what it seems

It gets worse. Most compostable packaging ends up in landfill or in bad composting heaps. When decomposing anaerobically it will decompose mostly into methane, a very bad greenhouse gas (GHG), at least 80 times worse than CO2. A recent article in the Guardian shows how bad the problem of methane production from waste tips is. This is why councils in NZ have different collection for food scraps.

The EU has done very detailed work on analysing plastics and tries to limit the use of compostable plastics to certain uses eg in agricultural settings where plastic is used on the land. It is actually very difficult to find good life cycle analysis (LCA) research. There are more studies supporting the EU position further explained in layman's terms in the Daily Mail.

NZPost did a detailed assessment to support their choice of recyclable packaging. The NZpost report is reasonably legible and clearly favours recycling and is not supportive of compostable packaging, in particular because of the methane production at end of life and the lack of clarity about the emissions at source. This is for a simple mono-plastic. For a 4-material composite film used for compostable coffee packaging it becomes a lot worse and certainly a lot harder to analyse. For starters bioplastics tend to be less strong and a coffee bag weight alone is 40% more than an equivalent plastic bag.

So this is our second reason why for now we want to move away from compostable coffee packaging: it cannot be fully certified and it contributes more to GHG emissions.

Problematic sources of bioplastic

The story does get worse. Most of the bioplastic is derived from edible primary materials like corn and sugar. So bioplastics and even worse, many biofuels (used also as primary material for some bioplastics), require arable land that could be used for food production. Although the final packaging must be compliant with food safety standards, there is likely a lot of room to use pesticides and GMO material in the production of bioplastics. This for us defeats the purpose! Research is limited and tend to play down the environmental and health effects and land use effects but it is clear that they are very significant

We can easily demonstrate the extreme use of fertiliser for bio-fuel. Non-organic agriculture is very dependent on Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphor inputs. The latter two are mostly derived from phosphate and potassium chloride that are mined. Unlike urea (Nitrogen source) their cost is not very dependent on the oil price. Yet if you get charts of the oil price since 2000 and charts of phosphate and KCl prices you can see that when oil goes up the latter two go up multiples, in fact 4 or 5 times. Urea as well, although partly because of the higher oil price. Why? It is because the production of biofuels becomes highly profitable and production of sugar cane and soy in especially South America, and palm oil in Asia gets pushed to the limit at great detriment of the environment. It is neither a coincidence that deforestation in the Amazon went through the roof when the oil price started to move up in 2004. Although this illustration is particular relevant to the production of bio-fuels, there is no reason to assume that production of primary materials for bio-plastics would not be highly dependent on damaging inputs to get yields up. 

Full transparency is difficult to obtain

Packaging manufacturers do not provide much detail on the primary sources. There is no 3rd party certification as to the sustainability of the primary material, it certainly is not organic. So apart from the competition with food production, the producers do not supply emission data to produce these plastics. With the primary products not used for food, the use of pesticides and fertiliser is likely much higher, which is bad for the environment, and those inputs alone contribute to very high GHG emissions. Add to this the inefficient supply chains with the compostable components coming from all over the world to have our compostable packaging made, we don’t think the emissions in the production of compostable packaging are lower compared to synthetic plastics.  Manufacturing in NZ makes no difference as the primary materials come from overseas. The environmental footprint of compostable film is not part of the assessment in composting certification. 

So this is the third reason why want to move on: we don't think bioplastics should use arable land and the production emissions of our compostable packaging are most likely greater than that of normal plastics. 

Where to now?

In the 12 years that we have worked with compostable coffee packaging there has not been a real breakthrough in technology, sourcing and the certification thereof. The bio-plastics market is not much more than 1% of the total plastics market. There is a new bioplastic coming on the market that can replace PET bottles but there is not much happening in soft plastics. A compostable bottle can still be swallowed by an albatross and kill it. So without waste collection bio plastic bottles may only encourage littering, and this applies to all bioplastics.

When we started there seemed more hype about transiting from primary base materials like corn, soy and sugar to secondary base materials like wood/forestry remains and other agricultural waste. Also tertiary sources are being developed ie base materials directly made by bacterial conversion. These options have not been commercialised yet.

When bioplastics can be made from second and tertiary sources we lose a big chunk of the negatives (pollution at source, land use and land loss/deforestation) and bioplastics become more sustainable. However, progress is too slow to persevere for now with home compostable packaging.

So we have had enough of it. We don’t think our home compostable packaging is the right solution. We did not fully consider the life cycle GHG emissions of compostable packaging. Add to this the gap in our certification and we cannot longer justify to continue with it. We will phase it out in May/June 2024 followed with our iCoco brand later in the year when film runs out.

Explainer: what is the problem with compostable packaging in landfill and most compost bins?

Plastics including bioplastics are made of large hydrocarbon chains with few oxygen atoms. What happens in landfills and many composting situations? The packaging material is compacted and as more waste is dumped on top, all the air (with oxygen) is slowly squeezed out of the spaces between the rubbish and air cannot enter. To break down it cannot get oxygen and it is reliant on anaerobic degradation ie bacterial action reducing the hydrocarbons of the plastics into methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. 

Normal plastics are very stable compounds and they may take thousands of years to breakdown. However, by design, compostable plastics can break down in months releasing much more methane over a much shorter period of time, making them so much worse in terms of GHG emissions. In addition, there is usually more packaging for the same functionality as it is not so strong compared to normal plastic.

Good, large waste tips and composting sites have methane collection but the vast majority have not. This is a big problem with compostable packaging, people think they are doing good by buying it but in fact, by it mostly ending up in landfill or not good composting piles, the problem is worse.

There is also the problem that some people feel not as bad about littering compostable packaging, but in many cases the compostable plastic could do as much damage to an animal if ingested as it does not break down so quickly in a stomach.

Then there is the issue of people putting compostable plastic in the recyclable plastic stream which causes quite a few issues there. 

At IncaFé, we specialise in different organic specialty coffee, which we import directly from growers, mostly in Peru. We have single origin varieties and blended cultivars. Check out our range of organic coffee to learn more.  

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