Why are we using plastic packaging?
Firstly, let’s make it clear, we don’t want to be using plastic! But we are (at the moment) because plastic offers a strength of seal against the elements that our products need for any kind of shelf life, a seal that compostable films can’t match, and it’s currently easier to recycle plastic than to compost compostable films. Our film is polypropylene (a number 5), that most supermarkets have collection points for, if your council doesn’t collect it.
Another reason for not using compostable packaging is because it has an even bigger carbon footprint than plastic, it still contains plastic, and there’s little to no infrastructure for composting it at the moment. Unfortunately, these films are likely to end up in landfill, where they will remain as nothing breaks down in landfill – nothing.
A Green-Washing Mess…
Although they seem to be the environmentally-friendly choice, compostable films contain a small layer of plastic, generally 10% but up to 60% in some films, so they’re not as ‘Plastic-Free’ as you might think. It also doesn’t help that any food wrappers found in waste/composting facilities will be removed and go into landfill (they don’t know who’s wrappers are plastic, or who’s are compostable).
Part of the problem here is that companies don’t make it clear what their film is made of. There’s no point in having a compostable film, or a recyclable film, if you don’t say so on the packaging. If that wrapper says ‘Made from compostable film’, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can compost that film! It might be made from compostable film, but if it’s been printed with oil-based inks (most are), then that film won’t break down in your compost heap, unless it specifically states that it’s ‘Home Compostable’. The same is true of packaging that is ‘bio-degradable’. These films will need to go to ‘industrial composting’ facilities, which have very specific conditions to generate the breakdown of these films, but like we’ve said, they’ll likely get removed long before because they a potential contaminant.
Then there’s the packaging that’s even more vague, like those that say ‘made from natural materials’, what does that mean? The word ‘Natural’ doesn’t legally mean anything, crude oil is ‘natural‘! What are they trying to tell us? God knows! We haven’t even tackled those films that are made of plastic but look and feel like paper ‘because the end user likes to feel like they’re using less plastic‘! WTF?!
After running some trials in 2022 with a ‘Home Compostable’ film printed with vegetable-based ink and a water-based protective lacquer, we found that our product’s shelf life was decimated from several months to just a few weeks due to a weak seal. We’d been warned by some in the packaging industry about such film’s poor sealing quality, but presumed they were just trying to get us to buy plastic – they were right though.
Compostable film’s carbon footprint is bigger because it’s made from wood pulp harvested from massive monoculture Eucalyptus plantations grown on deforested rainforest land and shipped around the world for processing into cellulose. We know our use of palm oil in our products is problematic, but as a high-yield food product for humans (not for ‘livestock’), palm makes some sense, but deforestation for the sake of producing a packaging material with a carbon footprint at least 10% bigger than plastic doesn’t make much sense to us. Compostable film may be an ‘alternative’ to plastic, but is it a better alternative? At the moment, we’re not convinced.
We should note that there is one film on the market that is paper-based, is genuinely 100% plastic-free, that can go into your paper recycling, but just like the compostable films, it’s seal and barrier qualities aren’t suitable for complex confectionery like our toffees and caramels, and it’s not cheap! Even if it was suitable, the minimum order quantities and price put it far out of reach for small businesses like us.
There is a point to be made here about the amount of plastic being used by the huge companies that are currently using compostable films with their small percentage of plastic in them are using more plastic than a little company like us with our plastic film will ever use.
The only sustainable system is a purely circular system, a system of production, collection, and reprocessing of the material. A system that grows trees in South America, processed and used as packaging, then composted in the UK, does not make more trees or more packaging.
Most single-use plastics are only single-use because they’re not being recycled, and recycling soft plastics is getting easier, and that’s helping drive the momentum behind the use of recycled plastics in packaging. For a genuinely sustainable plastics solution we need 100% recycled plastic food-safe packaging, and although there’s slow progress in that area, we’re keeping our eye on it. There are some 100% recycled plastic bottles on the market now, but it’s very limited, and expensive.
Here in the UK, the Conservative government made it law that any recycled plastic packaging made in the UK must contain a minimum of 30% new plastic, presumably for the purpose of keeping oil production going (ker-ching!). So any 100% recycled plastics on the market will be coming from outside the UK, enlarging its carbon footprint, and making it more expensive, not so great for us tiny companies!
We Need Better…
As consumers, we all need to make sure that we’re disposing (that’s not the right word…) of our packaging correctly – recycling plastics, composting compostables, otherwise they’re all ‘single-use’ packaging. We also need to persuade companies to make it clear on their packaging what that packaging is made of, and how to
dispose of it – move it forward properly, so that it doesn’t end up in landfill for centuries. We also need science to do better! Move away from new plastics, drive food-safe 100% recycled plastic packaging, and find an alternative to large carbon foot-printed cellulose, so that we can have truly sustainable packaging systems.
It might seem that we’ve got it in for compostable packaging, but we don’t, there’s just some issues with it that mean it can’t claim to be the planet-friendly alternative to plastic, not in it’s current form. We know plastic isn’t good, that’s why we’re frustrated with compostable films as they are at the moment.