Single-use plastic bans are coming, but is our nation’s waste infrastructure ready?
The problems caused by petroleum-based conventional plastics are evident—high energy and resource consumption, environmental pollution and climate change acceleration. Single-use plastic floods our households, eateries, festivals and planes. And while our products serve the need with a product that can decompose at the end of its lifecycle—while not creating leftovers, waste, and trash, much of our compostable packaging ends up in landfill. What if you can use your product [compost] after usage to grow plants? This happens at select industrial compost facilities, not all. Here we look at factors that enable closed-loop success and the cultural and systems challenges that remain.
Our current linear economy is outdated
New Zealand is one of the world’s most wasteful countries. It is estimated that in Aotearoa, we generate 17.49 million tonnes of waste per year, of which an estimated 12.59 million tonnes are sent to landfills. Plastic represents 8.3% of this waste volume. We throw away an estimated 159g of plastic waste per person per day. The current linear economy based on the take-make-dispose model is considered the main contributor to this large amount of waste generation. In light of globalisation and consumerism, the shift to a throw-away society has placed considerable strain on Mother Earth’s resources. Central to this issue and of growing concern is the ever-increasing use of single-use plastic that underpins our disposable society. Subsequently, plastic pollution is one of the most contentious issues to have come under public scrutiny.
July 2019, New Zealand banned single-use plastic bags; biodegradable bags were also banned, but not plastic produce bags or bin liners. Plastic packaging was also not included in the ban. In 2011, Italy became the first country in Europe to ban plastic bags, and the public was encouraged to use biodegradable plastic bags or bring their own. The ban was an excellent lesson in how to proceed because they helped do more than just reduce trash. In parallel to the plastic bag rules, Italy also reformed its treatment of compost and waste.
To make the biodegradable plastic bags, a network of biorefineries and other industrial facilities related to bioplastics sprung up across Italy, resulting in investments estimated at more than EUR 1 billion (2013-2016). Today, in terms of bio-waste treatment and compost production in Italy in 2019, Consorzio Italiano Compostatori (CIC) reports 3.9 million metric tons were diverted to composting, and 4.0 million tons were sent to integrated anaerobic digestion (AD) and composting facilities yielding 2.1 million tons of compost.
In 2006 CIC began their certification scheme, according to the Europea Union regulation EN:13432 on compostable packaging, named “Compostable CIC”. Labels help citizens recognise and use biodegradable and compostable shopper and bags (made of paper or bioplastic) and other related compostable products. Today, more than 40 products are certified and labelled with the CIC’s compostability scheme and thus are compatible with the industrial composting process without affecting the quality of the obtained compost. Biological plastic bags themselves won’t transform the European economy. But their success is a concrete example of how the bio-economy can take off through a combination of invention, public pressure over a problem, and lawmaking.
Composting as a response to climate change
Garbage disposal and waste management are invariably tied to climate change. According to the Ministry for Environment, 9% of New Zealand's biogenic methane emissions and 4% of greenhouse gas emissions are from food and organic waste. This index notes that if food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third most significant source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. And so, to meet our climate change objectives, the government is considering opportunities for reducing food waste and diverting it from landfill. It’s estimated that 45% of our household waste collected curbside is food.
In September 2016, Governor Edmund Brown Jr. set ambitious methane emissions reduction targets for California—reducing organic waste disposal by 50% by 2020 and 75% by 2025 (SB 1383). CalRecycle estimated this would require 50 to 100 new or expanded composting facilities to handle the newly-diverted material. Initial 2020 targets were not met, highlighting that such programs aiming to divert food waste and other compostable material such as certified compostable packaging are highly dependent on the availability of composting facilities that accept this material. And now the state must cut organic waste in landfills by 75% from 2014 levels by 2025, or from about 23m tonnes to 5.7m tonnes. Under California’s new law, which went into effect this year, January 1, all residents and businesses are required to recycle organic waste, and all jurisdictions must provide organic waste collection services. Despite limited success, cities throughout the state agree with the spirit of SB 1383.
Diverting biodegradable waste from landfill
Increasing composting capacity requires further investment, but private operators like EnviroWaste will remain reluctant without councils committing to the broader rollout of kerbside food scrap collection. Trials did occur, and currently, this service is available only in urban Papakura and selected streets in Takapuna, Northcote and Milford. There are no confirmed dates for a wider organics collection roll-out. The beverage container return scheme has remained under development since 2019 after citizens, councils, and stakeholders called for one. Unlike those in Italy and California, most of us here lack access to systems that collect and process biodegradable plastics correctly.
We refer to bio-based plastics, i.e. industrial polymeric materials which are wholly or partly derived or composed of natural sources, including plants (such as corn, sugarcane, tapioca, or other forms of cellulose), are compatible with a bio-economy, like materials derived from agriculture or food waste. Researchers conducting a systematic review investigating the relationship between food packaging and food waste found that bioplastics allow the diversion of food waste from landfill or incineration to ‘greener’ streams such as anaerobic digestion and composting, contributing to a circular economy. Today, the bioplastics industry accounts for around 1% of the total plastics market. Bio-based plastics are vital for sustainable innovation of end-product production and a plastic waste-free future. Therefore, encouraging biodegradable bio-plastics should target plastic packaging where effective recycling measures fail.
Our transition towards a circular economy requires disruptive solutions
If we take recent findings from the 2020 Better Futures report, while limited, found that just 39% of respondents would change behaviour make more sustainable choices when convenient. 18% rarely consider the matter at all. Compostable packaging is a convenient tool for preventing a half-eaten meal from an outdoor festival, fast-food chain or take-out meal at home from getting disposed of. Efficient material recovery strategies through closed-loop supply chains provide restorative and resilient economic outcomes. Ultimately, product manufacturers—compost facilities, produce a finished product [compost] with various applications such as agricultural land, landscaping, green roof installation, new construction, and roadsides.
Massachusetts introduced a Commercial Food Waste Disposal Ban in 2014, and at the time, Black Earth Compost was the only vertically integrated company, collecting material—including certified compostable tableware, composting and returning it to customers and selling it in garden centres across Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. The state was lagging behind what Black Earth Compost was pushing for—composting and anaerobic digestion. Barriers aren’t an excuse for not innovating; Black Earth Compost was ready to go forwards. The ban resulted in a positive financial impact and helped push awareness to a previously fringe activity.
And we’ve seen how this works at a local level. Manurewa High School is diverting around 3500kgs of waste per week from landfill to compost, as part of the government-led healthy school lunch initiative, Ka Ora, Ka Ako, which we support, providing the certified compostable packaging. On Waiheke Island, The Compost Co. offers a commercial composting service across Waiheke Island, collecting certified compostable packaging and organic waste from local businesses. Materials are then processed at their Te Motu composting site, creating highly nutrient-rich compost available to purchase from the Waiheke Sustainability Centre. Altezano Brothers implemented our closed-loop solution—Compost Collect, at each of their four Auckland sites—Newmarket alone diverted 8 tonnes of organic waste from landfill in just ten months. This also shows how pioneers are driving the current system toward a more sustainable one. Are the national industrial systems and consolidated enterprises ready too?
Wellington-based Capital Compost announced in 2019 that they would no longer accept compostable packaging and that instead, it would go to Southern Landfill. Wellington Council’s Waste Operations Manager stated that pursuing BioGro organic certification for Capital Compost meant they could no longer accept compostable bags and compostable coffee cups. That said, BioGro states that organic certification for compost does not guarantee that residues are not present. This 2018 study found that while additional time was required for some of the material to break down entirely, researchers found compostable packaging inputs did not add or take away any nutrient value from the finished product. Findings also concluded that compostable packaging could be a valuable substitute for traditional carbon sources. Within that, significant levels of diverse foodservice packaging to feedstocks did not impact the quality of the finished product.
If we are to shift from a linear to a circular economy, we must consider materials in their entirety. Understanding material properties, how they can be processed or transformed into something—by acquiring this knowledge, such approaches have the potential to empower communities and increase their self-sufficiency. It is already happening.
Creating a climate-neutral and resilient society
Certified compostable packaging needs to get composted if we are to accelerate the plastic waste-free future. The composting process provides significant climate change benefits, with soils serving as a critical carbon sink. However, as composting infrastructure is still being developed, likely, compostable packaging may initially be landfilled. Plastic drink stirrers, polystyrene takeaway food and beverage packaging, and plastic-stemmed cotton buds will be banned by the end of this year. The phasing out of single-use plastic items continues through 2025. There are 12 industrial compost facilities in New Zealand and three community facilities that accept compostable packaging. Without investment in composting infrastructure, the desire for alternative and more sustainable solutions, with the aim of replacing those plastics used today for bio-plastics, will see these materials destined for a linear fate.
If you found this article interesting, share it with others. If you would like to compost at home, get started here. Or, if you don’t have the time or space for composting at home, visit Compost Connect to locate local drop-off points for your food waste. If you are a business seeking to reduce your impact further, please get in touch to learn more about our products and closed-loop collection service, Compost Collect.