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Compostable & biodegradable packaging – ‘silver bullets’ or ‘greenwashers’?

Compostable and biodegradable packaging, currently mooted as the ‘silver bullets’ that will end South Africa’s plastic packaging pollution and landfill challenges, may not deserve the ‘green’ image they have been credited with worldwide and locally.

This is the opinion of respected recycler, Chandru Wadhwani, Joint Managing Director of Extrupet, one of the largest and most advanced recyclers of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle materials on the African continent.

If something is biodegradable, given the right conditions and presence of microorganisms, fungi, or bacteria, it will eventually break down to its basic components and blend back in with the earth. Compostable products are all biodegradable, but they are specifically intended for a composting environment. Whether an item is compostable or simply biodegradable, it needs to be placed in an environment that facilitates its breakdown.

Wadhwani readily admits that the lack of critical thinking around the adoption of compostable and biodegradable packaging in South Africa regularly keeps him up at night.

When it comes to compostable and biodegradable packaging, he claims there are seven characteristics (or concerns) responsible business owner or consumer should come to terms with before opting to use, or demand, them.

Blindly painting compostable and biodegradable packaging with a ‘green’ brush without consideration for how, where, when and into what they compost or biodegrade is irresponsible, particularly when the negatives associated with their uptake could outweigh the positives,” Wadhwani says.

These are the seven areas of concern Wadhwani has, and suggests consumers and business owners should not ignore:

  1. Both biodegradable and compostable packaging need heat and moisture to break down. In the absence of conditions that promote biodegrading or compositing, the packaging will not biodegrade or compost and instead pollute the environment. Is this acceptable to you?
  1. Biodegradable and compostable packaging breaks down to a microplastic. Opting to use these forms of packaging has no impact on the challenge of microplastics in the environment. Is this a plus or a negative for you?
  1. When biodegradable and compostable packaging break down they release CO2. Does it make sense to opt for a packaging technology that contributes to CO2 build-up at a time when we are trying so desperately to decrease our carbon emissions?
  1. It takes considerable energy to manufacture packaging, be it PET or biodegradable and compostable. In a circular value chain (such as that when PET, paper or aluminium is recycled), this energy is retained and harnessed thereby lowering the impact the material has across its lifecycle. With compostable and biodegradable bottles, that energy is lost. Can you reconcile yourself to this waste?
  1. Biodegradable and compostable packaging comes with an upcharge meaning that the overall cost to the consumer is higher. Given what we know about human behaviour – people say they would pay more for products packaged in ‘green’ materials but, when it comes to their shopping behaviour, their purchase decisions are largely based on price. This begs the question ‘Are biodegradable and compostable packaging financially sustainable business models?’
  1. Biodegradable and compostable packaging do not address the main challenge when it comes to pollution – the need to change human behaviour so that we do not pollute our environment. Instead, they encourage the ‘It’s OK to chuck this out the car window’ mentality.
  1. The manufacture of biodegradable and compostable products have their own carbon footprint, and if they are imported into SouthAfrica, this figure is considerably higher. How do we benefit the environment if we are shipping products from half way around the World?

In 2022, it was reported that South Africa was recycling 46% of plastic (which was higher than most countries). Paper was recycled at 70%, beverage cans/metal was recycled at 72% and glass was recycled at 42%. In the same year, 66% of PET, the most commonly-used food-grade plastic was recycled.

By contrast, the recycling recovery rate for multi-layer cartons – like those that milk, custard and juices are packaged in – is estimated around 12%. Packaging and processing solutions provider, Tetra Pak, recently announced plans to increase the recycling rate of Liquid Board Packaging (LBP) in South Africa to 40% by 2030.

When it comes to biodegradable and compostable packaging, South Africa currently has no dedicated recycling plants specifically for PLA or Polylactic acid, the thermoplastic monomer derived from renewable, organic sources such as corn starch or sugar cane and used in compostable packaging.

The cold facts are that, in South Africa at present, biodegradable packaging cannot be re-used or recycled. It can be composted, but only when it meets the appropriate composting standard. If it doesn’t pass muster, it is sent to landfill.

Compostable packaging also cannot be re-used or recycled; it can be composted, but under very specific conditions, in facilities that are designed to keep materials at 60°C for 10 consecutive days – these are very different from most home or garden centre composting streams.

This all means that biodegradable and compostable plastics – in a South African context – present a complete waste of material in that they are not recycled but sent to landfill. They must therefore be regarded as single-use packaging, ironically the same complaint that is often levelled at PET.

It also means that both biodegradable and compostable packaging – if placed into South Africa’s existing plastic recycling stream – will contaminate that stream resulting in it all being sent to landfill, as well as a loss of revenue for the recycler.

“At the end of the day, any business or person buying a product packaged in biodegradable or compostable packaging must accept responsibility for keeping it out of the recycling stream. It might be cynical of me but I remain unconvinced that the South African public is up to that challenge.

“Ultimately everything has an end of life and every product manufactured is extractive of scarce resources. The use of biodegradable and compostable alternatives must be justified and substantiated by scientific data around a lifecycle analysis, failing which it would be fair to assume they cause more harm than good,” Wadhwani says.