Single-use: we all know the challenges, but let’s explore a compostable solution. Even with a major shift to reusables, some disposables will always be needed. When the Wright brothers invented the aeroplane, there were no airports, and look at air infrastructure now. By choosing compostables, foodservice businesses can actively drive change in UK recycling. Here’s why businesses should consider going compostable.
What's the point of disposables being compostable?
Compostable disposables are designed to be recycled in an industrial composting facility together with food waste. That means there’s no need for sorting, and the compostable cup, lid, burger box, knife and napkin can all go together without removing the ketchup and leftover chips. An extra bonus is that once food and disposables share one bin, other dry recycling bins are cleaner and easier to recycle.
Compostability isn’t best for all situations. For example, Vegware wouldn’t make compostable water bottles, as PET plastic already has a developed recycling infrastructure. But for food-contaminated disposables, compostability is a sensible solution.
How do compostable solve food contamination?
Combining plastic and card in foodservice packaging creates massive recycling challenges, as highlighted by the recent coffee cup recycling debate. Food contamination is inevitable, so the result is incineration or landfill. For disposables destined for serving food, it makes sense to use materials that can be recycled together with food. With compostable disposables, food isn’t contamination, it’s a vital ingredient in the composting process.
What's wrong with recyclable?
Everyone likes the word ‘recyclable’, but here’s some news which highlights the real challenges of recycling used ‘recyclable’ packaging.
The UK exports 70% of its paper and 66% of its plastic for recycling, with no idea if it actually gets recycled. China took a lot of exported UK recycling, but over the years discovered it isn’t good enough quality to recycle. Since January 2018, China has banned imports of household plastics, and only accepts cardboard and paper with less than 0.5% contamination. Other Asian countries are considering similar bans, to avoid becoming a dumping ground for unrecyclable waste. Food contamination is a major problem, and the British recycling industry worries that most UK card and paper won’t meet China’s standards.
What’s the learning here? That in reality, card + plastic + food isn’t recyclable.
What is Vegware made from?
Vegware makes catering disposables from plants, not plastic. After use, they are designed for industrial composting with food waste. Vegware replaces conventional plastics with various plant-based materials. For example, PLA is a compostable material made from plants. PLA replaces the plastic in coffee cup linings or sandwich windows, and it’s the clear material in our cold cups and deli containers. Our hot cup lids and cutlery are made of a high-heat version of PLA.
Recycled sugarcane fibre is another practical material we use for our clamshells, plates and bowls. Known as bagasse, it performs really well, keeping heat in but not trapping condensation. Plus, it’s renewable, a recycled by-product of the sugar industry.
Do plant-based materials work as well as plastic?
Absolutely. In the early days there were limitations, but not any more. Cafés can be confident that their plant-based disposables will function perfectly. We only use water-based or vegetable-based inks for our custom printing, and the print finish is great.
What's the difference between biodegradable and compostable?
Same process, different breakdown speeds. Forget the term biodegradable, as it tells us nothing about timescales (wood is biodegradable, but a log cabin can stand for generations). Compostable means something can break down in under 12 weeks and is therefore suitable for industrial composting. Make sure your disposables supplier has compostability certification – that’s the real guarantee. Vegware holds the most extensive compostability certification of any UK packaging supplier.
What are composting conditions?
Compostable packaging needs to be in composting conditions in order to compost. Industrial composting creates the perfect balance of microbes, moisture and warmth, so that compostable packaging can be included in food waste recycling. Home composting conditions vary with the skill of the householder, so we don’t make any claims there, but there have been successful trials using hot compost bins.
How can composting reduce UK floods?
Composting is a form of recycling which keeps resources here in the UK, unlike much UK plastic and paper which is exported far overseas with no guarantee of it actually being recycled. UK soils are in crisis, and Michael Gove has warned that British farms are 30 to 40 years away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility”. Compost returns nutrients to the soil, and has the added benefit of improving soil structure, reducing the risk of floods.
What's the point if I can't compost it?
The earth has finite resources. Disposables are used for such a short time, so it makes sense to switch to renewable materials, reserving conventional plastics for applications where they can’t be easily replaced. Lots of people enjoy using plant-based materials, knowing they are a simple way to reduce carbon and help their business go green.
But here’s the exciting part. When the Wright brothers invented the aeroplane, there were no airports, and look at air infrastructure now. By choosing compostables, foodservice businesses can actively drive changes in UK recycling. The more compostables there are in use, the more we can work with the waste sector to extend collections UK-wide.
Can composting facilities accept it?
As you read this, there are industrial composting facilities all around the UK processing used Vegware. Since 2012, our environmental team has been working with composters to set up trials to make sure it works in practice. We work with many of the UK’s 50 suitable composting facilities, and are actively engaging with the composting sector to overcome any barriers.
What about composting collections?
Compostables are still relative newcomers compared to other materials, so trade collections aren’t available everywhere in the UK, but Vegware is actively changing that.
Why is education so important?
We’ve had in-house recycling experts for six years now, working closely with the waste sector and helping our foodservice clients set up composting schemes. A key part of the switch-over is education and behaviour change, creating clear bin signage and training everyone involved – from customers to catering managers and waste operatives. The last thing we want is to send contaminated waste to composting facilities. So education is very important, and it’s something we take seriously here at Vegware.
What about on-the-go?
Compostables face exactly the same issue as all disposables on-the-go: how to capture it once it’s walked out the door? Schemes collecting any on-the-go recycling (including plastic-lined cups), depend on consumers finding the right bin, and not accidentally contaminating it with the wrong materials. The right ‘binfrastructure’ is needed, but those bins need to be used correctly. That means clear messaging and consumer education is vital to make sure what is collected is good enough to be recycled.
The thing is, exactly the same challenges (binfrastructure + behaviour) apply to all recycling – whether that’s plastic-lined cups, plastic bottles, or compostable disposables. Compostables are not the enemy. We’re fighting the same challenges, with the same goal: better recycling.
There’s a major opportunity for change in UK recycling right now.
Compostables are the only practical solution for food-contaminated disposables. The more businesses that go compostable, the faster we can achieve this much-needed change.