The Truth About Compostable Packaging
By Harry Creevey | Illustration by Yi Jong
It is easy to become demoralised when thinking about how much waste we produce. Every little thing that we consume seems to add to the never-ending list of personal slights aimed at our planet. It makes sense to gravitate towards products that offer some respite from the inconceivable scale of the problem and the guilt that arises from a lack of action. Enter greenwashing.
Greenwashing is a concept that you are probably familiar with. It occurs when a company uses its marketing to make itself appear more environmentally conscious than it really is. Or, to convince consumers that they are “making a difference” by consuming one company’s product instead of a competitors. Once you become aware of it, you start noticing that it is everywhere. From toilet paper to air travel, there is no limit to what marketing can brand “good for the environment”. But there is one particular product which irritates me the most. This is because their entire brand is built around being good for the environment. The product is compostable packaging.
Compostable packaging came onto the market about ten years ago and has soared in popularity through individuals and organisations seeking to distance themselves from their waste or looking to claim the moral high ground. It has been so effective because it offers a simple solution to a complex question. How do we stop producing so much waste? Buy our products. As the cliché goes, if it is too good to be true, it probably is. It is hard to ignore the problems with compostable packaging when you start looking beneath the surface.
The fine print of the packaging always reads “only compostable at commercial composting facilities”. This is because the products are designed to break down when maintained at a temperature of 55˚C which cannot be achieved with even the most sophisticated Titirangi mother’s backyard compost setup. While Ecoware’s website claims there are “97 commercial facilities” in NZ, according to WasteMINZ’s website there are only 12 industrial composting facilities in New Zealand that will accept compostable packaging. The majority of these companies only accept compost from approved waste collectors. They are completely inaccessible to the average consumer who thought they were making a difference by buying the slightly more expensive plates for the family barbeque.
The second problem is that the majority of these ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘earth nurturing’ products just end up in the landfill. Once they are in the landfill, they generally do not decompose because they lack oxygen. Or, if they do, they produce methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times as potent as CO2. In their sustainability report, BioPak manages to ignore this fact. They report that their customers made a “big impact this year” by diverting about 9000 tonnes of “fossil fuel-based plastic” from landfills. However, on the same page celebrate diverting only 1,500 tonnes of waste from landfill into composting facilities. This leaves a total of 7,500 tonnes unaccounted for, further suggesting that only 1/6 of their products are being composted properly.
They claim that due to their products being sourced from renewable resources and being carbon neutral, the impacts on the environment are “far less damaging”. But they are ignoring the fact that once it is in a landfill, the waste is essentially the same. Even if the process that got it there was ‘greener’ this is still not a sustainable solution.
I think it is worth acknowledging the good work that these companies are doing. For example, BioPak offers a waste collection service for businesses that have designated compost bins. This is an excellent service but is only available in New Zealand in Auckland and Nelson and is not very widely used yet. Therefore, the majority of the people and organisations using composting products are only environmentally friendly on a superficial level. This is allowing companies to practice greenwashing. If there was the infrastructure and buy-in from customers that ensured their products were composted, these companies would offer an excellent alternative to traditional plastic packaging. But at the moment they are profiting off a false narrative, or at least one that is not completely true. Ecoware literally have a picture of a woman putting a plastic bag that says “I am making a difference” into a compost bin on their website. Similarly, BioPak claims their single-use products are good because they “save the water and energy required to sanitise reusables”. Then, in their sustainability report, they mention their plans to sell “beautiful, safe and sustainable reusable cups” which directly contradicts the apparent benefit of their other products. It definitely feels like they are just choosing whichever narrative works for the product they are trying to market.
Last month MP Eugenie Sage announced an exciting consultation document titled “Reducing the impact of plastic on our environment”. This comes after the successful phasing out of single-use shopping bags and outlines the government’s plan to phase out some hard-to-recycle plastic products and seven additional single-use items including straws, produce bags, and tableware. At present, this would include compostable tableware like those produced by Ecoware and BioPak, citing that there are insufficient facilities to handle this waste.
This raises the bigger question of whether composting should become a key waste reduction tool in New Zealand. Each year we send 157,398 tonnes of food waste to landfill. Like the compostable products, when in landfill this food is unable to biodegrade and there are reports of food being preserved for decades when it is protected from sunlight and oxygen. Alternatively, it rots and produces methane, as mentioned previously. If the composting facilities were available, New Zealand could work towards a truly sustainable food model. The consultation for this plan is open to the public is open until the 5th of November, and you can find more information at