Compostable Complications

A recent report looking at recycling in Wales has revealed that only 1 of the 13 councils surveyed was able to collect and dispose of composable plastics in the intended way. The other councils did not have the processes and infrastructure to deal with them and as such these items were likely to be re-directed to landfill.

For businesses and organisations in Wales that had switched to using compostables, these findings were frustrating to say the least.

The complexities surrounding our current recycling infrastructure and its ability to deal with compostables raises many questions, not only for those in Wales, but across the whole of the UK.

The perfect solution?

For those who have bought into the ‘compostables ideology’, items such as compostable single-use cups, cutlery and food containers seem to offer the perfect solution. Created from plant-based materials, the packaging has been developed to act like plastic in terms of durability but has the benefit of being biodegradable.

Hailed as a key solution to plastic pollution, there is no doubt that these products are a huge leap in the right direction. However, in an imperfect world the ability for compostables to slip into their intended position as circular-economy solution is far from simple.

Ultimately for any sustainable solution to work, it must be able to fit into the current infrastructure. Innovative technology may have resulted in a fantastic product, but there is a danger that those using them are not fully aware of the challenges associated with disposal.


The complexities around compostables are two-fold:

Firstly, the compostable manufacturers have done such a great job with design and technology, that it is now very difficult to distinguish these eco-friendly items from the plastic originals.

This means that compostables can be difficult to identify, segregate and sort, both at the point of consumer disposal and at the specialist recycling depots. To ensure any recycling scheme is efficient, material segregation is key. Compostables are no different and it is vital that non-compostable plastics do not get mixed up with the compostable collections. If they do they will contaminate the compost produced and ruin the end product.

Secondly, for compostables to be disposed of as intended, they must be broken down with heat and oxygen in an industrial compost facility. There has been a common misconception that compostables can be disposed of with food waste, this is not generally the case.

Compostables can only be disposed of with food waste if the food waste is processed using IVC (in vessel composting). However, in the UK most food waste is not processed in this way. Instead it is sent for anaerobic digestion.

Anaerobic digestion, which is preferred due to its environmentally friendly and cost-effective credentials, does not involve the use of heat and oxygen. It is therefore unsuitable for compostable disposal. If compostables find their way into the anaerobic digestion collection stream they will be removed and diverted to landfill.

Due to the issues detailed above, compostables will usually require a whole new collection stream, separate from both food waste and general recycling.  If volumes are high enough, some innovative recycling businesses such as Cawleys are able to facilitate this. However, if the compostables are low volume or contaminated separate collections could prove problematic and expensive.

Alternative options for disposal include home composting or using a compost collective.

Although it is possible to use a home compost, users must be aware of the length of time it would take the items to break down successfully.

The alternative compost collective allows organisations to provide disposal points for compostables and store them until they are picked up for disposal as part of a wider collection scheme.

Do the right thing

Many businesses are keen to ensure that their environmental credentials are as positive as possible. Customers are becoming increasingly aware of the part business plays in environmental pollution. As such, eco-friendly practices are now often desired, if not demanded by customers all over the UK.

Naturally, green packaging solutions have been snapped up by well-meaning organisations. However, it is vital that these organisations understand the bigger picture before heading straight in.

Diagnose the disposal options

Disposal roots are an important part of the circular economy. It is all well and good for a product to be deemed environmentally friendly, but if the intended process isn’t practical or feasible in that location, these products could be doing more harm than good.

Research is key

The best course of action is to always talk to the professionals. If your company is considering a switch to compostables it is advisable to contact your waste provider. They will be able to tell you the honest facts. This will allow your business to fully understand whether the infrastructure exists to deal with compostables and whether it’s the right choice to switch. In some instances, businesses may be able to join compostable collectives, others may discover that it is preferable to opt for plastic containers and recycle them properly, rather than switch to compostables that will end up in landfill.

If your business is considering a switch to compostables Cawleys are always on hand with all the facts to help you make the right decision.


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