A Cautionary Composting Tale
4 min read
Over the past few years I've developed a keen interest in sustainability. I founded the Environmental Sustainability Society at university and have done a number of freelance sustainability projects for businesses in the last couple of years. Lancashire Local was recently featured as Green Lancashire's sustainable business of the week and had quite a bit of interest, so I thought I would share more of my sustainability experience.
I believe achieving true environmental sustainability is a complex subject which can be overwhelming when you start to get into it. However, there are a number of simple places to start. The first thing to understand is what actually happens to your waste. I will illustrate this with a short story of how I fell in, and then swiftly out of, love with ‘compostable plastics’…
In my 3rd year at university I set up a smoothie company which made fresh and healthy smoothies at events. I was conscious of the waste generated by these events and so wanted to minimise my impact on the environment, whilst still flexing my entrepreneurial muscles.
One waste management concept to be aware of is ‘contaminated waste’. This is waste which cannot be recycled because it has some other material on it - for instance if a baked beans can has too much sauce residue on it then it won’t be possible for the recyclers to recycle the tin from it. In cases where this happens, the waste item is either sent to land-fill or it is incinerated - a process known as ‘energy from waste’, where they burn the waste and use the heat to generate electricity.
I had learned of ‘compostable plastics’ and how they could simply be composted back to soil once disposed of. I thought this would be great for something like a smoothie cup because it won’t need to be washed because whatever is contaminating it will also decompose with the cup!
I found a supplier of compostable plastic cups, lids and straws - they were 10 times more expensive than just plain old plastic (1p vs 10p per cup). My inner entrepreneur groaned when I discovered this, but I was keen to do what I thought was right. I ordered 1,000 of each and prepared for my first festival event.
At this point I should say that in order for these cups to decompose they must be commercially composted. That means they go into a great heated chamber and are turned constantly for 12 weeks, in just the right conditions. In order for the cups to reach a commercial composting facility they need to be collected by a commercial composting company and the bin within which they are kept must not have any other type of waste (i.e. everything in the bin must be compostable, including the bin liner itself). I asked the event organiser if there would be a ‘compostables’ bin at the event, he said no.
Another issue to point out is that, often, ‘compostable plastics’ are mistaken by consumers for real plastics and so they are thrown in the plastics bin. This is very bad for recycling because the compostable material will ‘contaminate’ the plastic recycling material, making it much harder to recycle all that other plastic.
So, I discover that there are no compostable bins at the event and if anyone throws my compostable smoothie cups into a recycling bin it could contaminate the whole recycling batch. This means I need my own bin and I need to make sure people put only compostable materials in there… how often at an event do you stand by the stall where you bought your food/ drink until you’ve finished it and then throw it away in their bin? I realised it was going to be very difficult to control my waste stream…
I rang up several commercial composting facilities and asked if I could have a bin for an event and if they could collect it. Pretty much all of them said they couldn’t because they didn’t have collections in that area or because they wouldn’t do one off events. It appeared as though I had bought 1,000 cups that were going to be incinerated - I may as well have bought the 1p cups!
I phoned up my cup supplier and asked him if this was a common problem with ‘compostables’ and what all of his customers did with their compostable waste. His answer was that most of his customers didn’t worry about the waste because their customers were buying from them and disposing of the waste elsewhere. I nearly screamed! I asked “so most people are either throwing them in general waste bins, where they are burned, or throwing them in recycling bins, where they are contaminating plastic recycling waste?” There was a short pause before he answered, “pretty much, yeah”.
I have since discovered there are approximately 6 commercial composting facilities in the UK…
So, next time you are buying from someone using compostable packaging, make sure you are going to be able to put it in the right bin before you congratulating yourself for saving the planet!
Covid put the tin lid on my smoothie business career and I have since graduated and launched Lancashire Local.
Now, the business I have set up promotes Lancashire businesses online and sells hampers of Lancashire products in cardboard hampers which are made from 70% recycled cardboard and are fully recyclable. You can find them here https://www.lancashirelocal.com/collections/gift-hampers.
The hampers are also great for sustainability because they don’t require any Sellotape to hold together and the postage labels used are made from Kraft paper. This means the whole box can be recycled with my customers’ cardboard recycling collection without contaminating the rest of the cardboard with Sellotape or plastic sticky postage labels.