Why compostable packaging may be worse for the environment

Compostable packaging is all the rage amongst ‘green’ companies, but the truth is that it may be more damaging to the environment than the plastic it generally replaces. We look at the pros and cons and offer tips on how to evaluate the packaging used for your dog’s food. 

We spend a lot of time at Honey’s worrying about packaging. It is on the agenda of our weekly management meeting and we have a special committee whose brief it is to consider every new option that becomes available. Invariably, we end up discussing whether we should make the switch from the 100% recyclable packaging we currently use to something that is compostable. You might think that this would be a no-brainer for an artisan food producer obsessed with sustainability. But the decision is considerably more complicated than you may imagine. This short article explains why.


The problem with plastic

The problem with plastic is that it is indestructible. Every single plastic item that has ever been made still exists. Larger pieces may slowly breakdown into smaller and smaller pieces, but it never completely disappears. This is nothing short of disastrous for the world’s ecosystems. Plastic is polluting our seas, our beaches and our countryside. More to the point, it is killing off our wildlife.

In his television series, Blue Planet II, David Attenborough explained how millions of birds, fish and Cetacea die every year, either because they have swallowed plastic (often mistaking it for food) or because they have been strangled or suffocated by it. When dumped or put into landfill sites, plastic leaches harmful chemicals, causing death and destruction. Especially worrying is the fact that plastic microfibres, which account for a third of all the plastic in the ocean, and attract and bind with harmful toxins, end up as part of the human food chain. As King Charles, President of the Marine Conservation Society, succinctly and chillingly put it: ‘Plastic is now on the menu.’

We hate plastic – especially single-use plastic – but it still may be better than the other options and the news is not all bad.


The three options

There are three options for producers wanting to reduce the amount of environmental damage caused by their packaging, being:

  • Recyclable plastic packaging. This can be recycled almost endlessly. Problems associated with this option are caused by inefficient collection and lack of recycling facilities.
  • Biodegrable packaging. This is made from organic materials and doesn’t need a special environment for it to break down. Harsh chemicals are necessary to produce it and there is no rule as to how long it can take to biodegrade (a year… a thousand years). It may leach harmful chemicals into the environment.
  • Compostable packaging. This is made from organic matter rather than fossil fuels. It breaks down quickly and creates a useful by-product.


The compostable option

It is easy to see why compostable packaging has become so popular. Basically, the materials from which it is made are quickly and naturally broken down by microorganisms into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass that can be used as natural fertiliser for agriculture. Compostable packaging can be made from both renewable resources and waste products. A compostable bag degrades in as little as 180 days. It is a great story to tell consumers, who often don’t stop to consider the deeper implications associated with this form of packaging.


So, what’s not to like?

We should begin by explaining that the word ‘compostable’ has no legal definition in many countries (although this is changing) and that many manufacturers exaggerate the environmental benefits of their products. It should also be pointed out that many consumers believe that compostable is the same as naturally biodegradable, which isn’t the case.

There is a huge difference between industrial and home compostable material.

Industrial composting occurs in large facilities that can maintain the necessary environment for breaking down the material. This usually involves temperatures of 50°C and 60°C for at least 6 weeks. If it isn’t sent to such a facility it causes similar levels of pollution to traditional fossil-fuel-derived plastics. In the UK, many local councils don’t like compostable materials going into their compost bins because they are concerned about contamination. There are very few facilities for processing it.

Something that is home compostable (in other words can be put into the compost bin in your garden) is preferable although some of the products on the market contain chemicals called perfluoroalkoxy alkanes (PFAs), which are highly toxic and do not degrade. These chemicals can then transfer into the compost and contaminate soil and groundwater.

However, we have other reasons for not embracing compostable packaging.


A murky supply chain

A big issue for us is where does the material used to make the packaging come from? Unfortunately, the supply chain is very opaque. Often it isn’t possible to discover what the packaging is made from, where it was grown, how it was grown, how it was processed or where it was processes.

There are appear to be two primary sources.

The first is from specially grown crops. In order to grow the materials for compostable packaging, huge tracts of land in poorer countries are being turned over to monoculture, which in turn destroys biodiversity. The rainforest in Central and South America is, in part, being destroyed to grow crops, which in turn are being used to create compostable packaging. This is madness!

A high percentage of compostable packaging is made from waste material. For example, what is left after sugar cane has been processed. This sounds good until one starts to ask questions about the process and location of the producers. One supplier we spoke to said that all their compostable packaging uses waste material sourced in Africa that is then transported to China for processing. This doesn’t seem very environmental to us especially as it is difficult to find anything out about the Chinese factory carrying out the work. China does not, on the whole, have a good record for environmental care.


Questions, questions

When we are discussing this in our meetings, a number of other questions regularly come up:

What chemicals does the packaging contain and what effect will it have on the environment after it composts? There is some evidence that some compostable packaging actually leaches harmful chemicals into the soil. You’ll find quite a bit online about this. No one is really certain because it is still relatively new.

Is it leak proof? Compostable tubs have to be sealed with non-recyclable plastic to make them leak proof. Compostable pouches have to be lined with something similar to achieve the same results. As an aside the plastic film on a 500g tub weighs about half the amount of the recyclable plastic Honey’s use on our current 500g packaging.

What is the total size and weight of the material used? Most compostable packaging for food has four elements being a tub, film (see above), lid and cardboard sleeve. This is quite a lot of material when compared to the system that Honey’s currently uses.

How much freezer space does it take up? Compostable packaging takes up a lot of freezer space. Again, to offer a comparison, our existing system uses 20% less space. This means faster freezing and less storage space which means a saving in resources including electricity.

Does the packaging compost as promised? We have tested home compostable packaging in our own compost heaps, and we have found that it does not break down as promised. Some compostable packaging, as discussed above, needs to be put into industrial composting systems.


In conclusion

Honey’s packaging is 100% recyclable and much of it is also made from recycled materials. It uses a fraction of the material required for any of the other options and takes up less space. We have a fully traceable supply chain. We can see how, in the future, compostable packaging may become much more attractive but for the time being we are sticking to what we believe is the least bad option.

If you have any questions about Honey’s packaging please email our founder jonathan@honeysrealdogfood.com