A recent article in the Guardian reports that the UK should reduce its use of plastics, rather than replace them with other materials. In my view this article highlights a serious issue around education and the danger of trying to find a 'quick fix' solution to the problem.
It is not enough to simply replace single use plastics with other single use alternatives. The priority should always be elimination and reduction of waste.
The increasing use of compostable and biodegradable packaging is perhaps part of the answer but as the article highlights some vital considerations. At present, the infrastructure in the UK is not fully equipped to handle significant quantities of these new types of packaging. Some companies, such as our own, operate specialist collection schemes to deliver compostables to the correct disposal facilities but this relies heavily on our client's commitment to segregate these compostables away from other waste streams.
Compostable packaging works where there is a single stream collection available and the right signage and education for end users. We are working with Vegware on such a service for our clients but it requires a lot of commitment from all parties to make it work.
Contamination greatly reduces the ability to dispose of compostables in the way intended. The schemes can only work if the items are separated at the point of disposal. However, this relies on greater knowledge among the general public and more education around what compostable waste is, and why it needs to be kept separate form other waste streams. Without this information and education, composables have the potential to add further confusion.
Labelling and education
Clear labelling is imperative - not only to identify which items are and are not compostable, but also to instruct consumers how to dispose of such items. It must also be said that clear labelling of this type only works if people bother to read it and are aware that they need to. This comes back to greater levels of awareness and a commitment by the producers of these materials not to present them simply as a 'friendlier alternative' - they need to be presented as a viable option PROVIDED they are disposed of correctly. Without this level of education there is a danger that these new types of packaging may get into current clean recycling streams, cause contamination and result in recycling having to be landfilled or incinerated.
Culturally there is still acceptance of littering amongst a proportion of the population which is very clear from the amount of litter we all see on our roadsides and in our communities. Whilst we continue to generate too much waste this is less problematic if it is disposed of correctly, either by recycling or into a general waste bin. It’s better to put a recyclable in general waste than throw it out of the car window for example! Perhaps more penalties are needed to stop people thinking that littering is acceptable? In terms of biodegradables and compostables it’s vital to educate people to understand that they are still waste and must go in the (right) bin and not out into the environment.
Ultimately we live in a culture where we expect convenience in everything we do and perhaps this is what needs to change.