Rob van Hille of The Moss Group explained that the desire to reduce the environmental impact of plastics has encouraged the exploration of alternative materials. He, however, cautioned that clear and consistent messaging, together with consumer and brand owner education, are critical in ensuring the responsible introduction and management of these materials.
Rob defined compostable materials as biodegradable materials – which can be bio- or fossil fuel-based – that break down in anaerobic composting processes through the action of naturally-occurring microorganisms.
He noted that several bioplastics, including PLA, aren’t home compostable. Home composting refers to the breakdown of biodegradable material under conditions found in domestic compost piles/bins while industrial composting takes place under controlled conditions in an industrial composting facility.
South Africa’s current legislative landscape includes specifications for compostable plastics (SANS 17099) and requirements for marking and identification of degradable plastics (SANS 1728).
SANS 1728 requirements state that if the entire product isn’t biodegradable or compostable, the claim needs to identify the specific components that are, clear instructions on how to separate components must be included where needed, vague or non-specific claims that imply the product has environmental benefits aren’t permitted, and an explanatory statement must accompany self-declared environmental claims that are likely to result in confusion.
‘Compostable plastics must be fit-for-purpose and responsibly managed to ensure they perform according to certifications and don’t disrupt mechanical recycling systems,’ remarked Rob.
According to Sally-Anne Käsner, founder of Circular Vision, the question shouldn’t be if compostable packaging is better than other plastic alternatives but rather what is the best fit-for-purpose design within the system. ‘It’s no longer possible for retailers or brand owners to think about their product or packaging in isolation; they have to consider the potential impacts.’
Sally-Anne also emphasised that compostable packaging shouldn’t be seen as a ‘quick cure’ or replacement for conventional plastics. ‘We first need to examine where compostable packaging will be useful. For example, it makes sense to use a compostable alternative within the same stream as food because door-to-door waste collection isn’t available throughout the country, making it difficult for people to separate at source.’
Melanie Ludwig, owner of Zero to Landfill Organics, agreed that compostable packaging must act as an effective barrier to prevent food from spoiling and going to waste. She also believes that it’s best suited for use around ‘dirty’ food, such as meat and dairy products.
‘Small items, such as bread tags, sugar sachets, toothpick wrappers, and fruit stickers, which can contaminate compost and pollute the environment, should also be compostable. But it’s important to consider if reusable packaging won’t be more fit-for-purpose before compostable alternatives,’ Melanie stated.
She also pointed out that before purchasing compostable product packaging buyers should ensure it’s certified by conformity logos from the Biodegradable Products Institute, European Bioplastics, OK Compost, and Australasian Bioplastics Association, etc.
Melanie, like Rob, warned that compostables that look like conventional plastics disrupt plastic recycling streams. ‘This is why the labelling on PLA products needs to be clear and bold, not hidden. Additionally, conditions in a landfill aren’t optimal for breaking down compostable products and will result in methane production,’ she asserted.
These examples and observations demonstrate the industry has some way to go in addressing the challenges and opportunities around biodegradability, compostability, and fit-for-purpose packaging.