Concerns & Obsticals
Compostable Materials - A Sustainable Replacement Of Petroleum Based Packaging?
3.5.1 Renewable Feedstock
- In Competition With Food Production? -
In the report from the EU Commission “Strategy on Plastics in a Circular Economy” (2017) the highest priority is to “decoupling plastics production from virgin fossil feedstock”.(76) If compostable packing would seriously compete with the large quantities of packaging produced by the petroleum based plastic industry, the question posed then is: what organic feedstock to use if not oil?. The concern is that the feedstock produced for making compostable/biodegradable plastics will compete with the food production and in turn be putting even more pressure on industrial agriculture and the already stressed soils.
Since the compostable plastic industry only uses a marginally small percentage of the global agriculture production this is not yet a urgent concern. In 2014 “the surface required to grow sufficient feedstock for today’s bioplastics production is about 0.01 percent of the global agricultural area of a total of 5 billion hectares.” (77)However, the question still stands. Huge investments for innovation and new ways of extracting sufficient feedstock are currently under development, for example with sewage. Sewage could be seen as a huge “hidden” resource and carries great potential as renewable feedstock. In 2016 was the first successful PHA produced for biodegradable plastic of sewage produced by the Dutch Phario project.(78) Another successful project in Brussels by Aquarius, this sewage treatment plant claims “that the sewage from the 1.1 million people of Brussels could potentially produce some 20,000 tonnes of bioplastics per year.”(79)
3.5.2 Related Infrastructure
- "Needs To Be Developed!" -
A more direct concern coming from environmentalists and the compostable material industry itself, is the problem of the facilities handling the compostable materials after use. Currently the facilities are few and need further development in order to properly handle and efficiently extract quality compost on a larger scale. The risk if there is no sufficient system for the compostable materials is that it can be mixed up with traditional non-degradable materials and can be displaced in landfills where it cannot decompose. In the New Plastic Economy’s strategy concern is addressed:
“…several elements need to be in place to make wider use of compostable plastics beneficial. These include the development of adequate infrastructure to handle such materials (e.g., separate collection of organics, composting or anaerobic digestion facilities) – infrastructure which is emerging but not yet widely available in many parts of the world.”'
- The New Plastic Economy Report (2016)
3.5.3 Change Of Behavior
- The Throw Away Culture -
Another concern is that usage of compostable packaging could exacerbate consumer negligence because they think it is “okey” to throw waste away in nature and the oceans. Since most compostable materials are designed to biodegrade in industrial compostable facilities it requires special condition of temperature and moisture. Eamon Bates from Pack2Go argues that “[compostble packaging will] be understood by consumers to mean that it is OK to leave this packaging behind in the countryside after use because it's easily bio-degradable in nature. That's nonsense! It may even make the litter problem worse”.(80) Furthermore, the chief scientist at the UN Environment Programme Jacqueline McGlade, stated to the British news site, Guardian that biodegradable/compostable products are “a false solution to the ubiquitous problem of litter in the oceans”.(81)
However, it can be argued that this is a overall problem of littering, and the behaviour of society, and not a problem with the product itself that needs to change. As we have seen waste doesn’t go “away”, “it’s really just put somewhere else” says Rachelle Strauss of the UK’s ZeroWasteWeek.(82) Consumer awareness, communication and education plays a vital role in conveying the message of correct disposal of compostable matters. In The European Commission road map “Strategy on Plastics in a Circular Economy (2017) states that low consumer awareness on how to handle waste properly, needs to be changed through raising awareness and educational programs, as well as manufacturer responsibility schemes as well as further development of clearer frameworks for biodegradable/compostable materials needs to be installed.(83)