Plastic food and drink packaging Contents

4Alternative materials

62.This chapter explores some of the alternative materials that can be used for food and drink applications, and whether they are better for the environment than conventional plastics.

Assessing environmental impacts

63.Earlier in this Report we highlighted the “Blue Planet” effect and public interest in marine plastic pollution. However, all materials have a range of environmental impacts. The Royal Society of Chemistry considered it “critical” to “consider the environmental impact of a packaging choice across all stages, from manufacture, transport and use, through to recycling and disposal”, adding that “many materials used as alternatives to plastic in packaging, such as cotton, glass, metal or bioplastics, can have significantly higher CO2 impact or water usage compared to plastic packaging”.161 WRAP added that “if we focus too heavily on a single type of impact (e.g. marine pollution), while neglecting others (e.g. carbon impact, impact on food waste), we risk making poor decisions which have unintended consequences”.162 Even though there is “a huge amount of public interest” in marine pollution, Peter Maddox from WRAP pointed out that “we know quite a bit about carbon, water impacts, energy and maybe recycling, but we are in a period where we are really trying to build up the knowledge base on marine pollution”.163 Juliet Philips, EIA, highlighted that “the production and manufacturing of plastic also comes with [other] problems” including “health and pollution costs all the way from extraction, when you are involved with the fossil fuel in production, right through to consumption, transport et cetera”.164 She added “you cannot just look at it once it becomes a piece of disposed plastic”.165

64.Despite these concerns, Green Alliance stated that “some companies are already switching to alternatives including bio-based and compostable plastics, paper, cartons or other materials in ways that will not ultimately prove sustainable”.166 Libby Peake from Green Alliance stated that “you cannot have a wholesale switchover to bio-based plastics, to aluminium, to glass, or to paper, which all have environmental consequences themselves”.167 Sarah Greenwood, University of Sheffield Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, explained that “on average over food packaging”:

if you replaced plastic packaging with alternatives, you would increase the weight of the packaging by 3.6 times. You would increase the energy use by 2.2 times. You would increase your carbon dioxide emissions by 2.7%.168

Some companies are conscious of wider environmental impacts. For example, during our roundtable meeting with SMEs, we heard from Garçon Wines, a company that has developed PET “eco wine bottles” that require less energy to produce and are 87 per cent lighter than traditional glass bottles, thereby cutting carbon emissions associated with logistics and transport.169

65.Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a method for comparing the environmental impacts of providing, using and disposing of a product throughout its life cycle.170 In other words, LCA identifies “the material and energy usage, emissions and waste flows of a product” over its entire life cycle to determine its environmental performance.171 In August 2019, Green Alliance published an infographic, based on peer-reviewed literature, comparing the environmental impacts of plastic bottles to other materials.172 It demonstrated that aluminium, glass and cartons all have different environmental impacts and Green Alliance concluded that “refilling reusable bottles is the only low impact option”.173

Figure 2: The impacts of single use vs refillable containers (Red = high, amber = medium, green = low)174

66.UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) stated that “there is little reliable, science-based information on which manufacturers and retailers can base decisions to permanently switch into alternative materials or novel, less environmentally harmful plastics and/or methods of product delivery”.175 UKRI added that it had “consulted with industry from across the plastic packaging supply chain” and that “a consistent message has been that this information deficit is preventing action or in some cases leading to action with inadvertently worse environmental outcomes”.176

67.All food and drink packaging, whether plastic or another material, has an environmental impact. There is a lot of emphasis on plastic waste and pollution, but other impacts such as carbon emissions must also be considered when determining which materials are most suitable for particular applications. In some cases, plastic may be the most suitable material, if waste is properly managed. A lifecycle approach is necessary to ensure that when producers and retailers are considering packaging materials, they are informed about the wider environmental impacts. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) should conduct a study that compares the environmental impacts of common food and drink packaging materials using a lifecycle approach. The study should review existing research, including on the environmental impacts of production, transportation, and waste management. Rather than pinpointing which materials should be used, this study should present evidence that retailers and consumers can use when making choices.

Biodegradable and compostable plastics

68.Biodegradable and compostable plastics, although not widespread, are becoming more commonplace. We were therefore interested in these alternatives to conventional plastics.

69.All plastics are made from either fossil-based or bio-based materials.177 Bio-based plastics are made using polymers derived from plant sources, such as starch, cellulose, oils and lignin.178 Either source can be used to make non-biodegradable, biodegradable and compostable plastics; the material used “does not necessarily dictate the way [the plastic] will behave at the end of its life e.g. a bio-based plastic or bioplastic does not automatically mean it will biodegrade”.179 Biodegradable plastics are those that “can be broken down by microorganisms (bacteria or fungi) into water, naturally occurring gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) and biomass”.180

70.Compostable plastics are a subset of biodegradable plastics, that degrade in specific conditions. The Environmental Services Association (ESA) considered compostable packaging to be “particularly suited to food packaging where in theory the compostable product can go in the food waste bin without having to be cleaned (unlike for dry recycling)”.181 The Bio-Based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA) considered that “compostable materials are an answer to specific packaging challenges and could substitute around 5–8% of current plastic packaging”.182 It considered that “compostables do not have a role to play where plastics can be easily recycled – water, juice and milk bottles, pallet shrink wrap, long shelf life products etc”.183 Instead, it suggested that “compostability is the most practical solution”:

a)where food contamination prevents recycling or reuse, for example, tea bags; labels on fruit/vegetables; food prep gloves; disposable plates, bowls, napkins, sandwich boxes, hot and cold drinks cups and lids; and condiment sauce sachets;

b)“where the item is too small or otherwise impractical for mechanical recycling”: for example, sweet wrappers;

c)Where the product can be “used or reused as a food waste caddy liner”: for example, carrier bags, bin liners and bags for packed fresh produce.184

Composting standards

71.There are two types of compostable plastics: “industrially” compostable plastics that only compost in specific industrial conditions; and “home” compostable plastics that should break down in domestic composting systems.185 Our inquiry focused on industrially compostable plastics.

72.Industrial composting conditions require “elevated temperature (55–60°C) combined with a high relative humidity and the presence of oxygen”.186 In order to demonstrate that they are compostable, these plastics must adhere to the standard BS EN 13432 and pass tests relating to disintegration and the chemical composition of the product.187 Then the packaging is awarded a “unique packaging product certification number” and allowed to use the compostable “seedling” logo (see Figure 1 in the previous chapter).188 Futamura highlighted that this regulatory requirement caused a “cost disadvantage”.189 This matter was also raised during the roundtable session we held.190

73.Richard Kirkman, Chief Technology & Innovation Officer, Veolia UK & Ireland, suggested that “standards are set for what is truly biodegradable and under what conditions” and then “you can label materials as passing that standard, and then we [waste management companies] can manage them”.191 In July 2019, Defra launched a call for evidence on Standards for biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics.192 The consultation, which closes in October 2019, seeks views on the suitability of “existing industrial and home composting standards”, whether a home composting standard would be desirable and the “potential unintended consequences [that] could arise as a result of a growth in use of compostable plastics”.193

Consumer awareness and waste collection

74.Producers aside, we heard little support for compostable packaging. Sarah Greenwood, University of Sheffield, explained that “there is a perception with compostable packaging that it turns into compost” but “it does not”.194 It turns into “carbon dioxide, water or methane” with “a tiny amount of biomass left behind”.195 She likened the process to “a very, very slow version of burning it”.196 Juliet Phillips, EIA, stated that “if a biodegradable cup gets into the sea, it could pose just as much of a problem to marine life as a conventional plastic cup”.197 Green Alliance was concerned about evidence that “people are more likely to discard material described as ‘biodegradable’ in the environment, which would make pollution on land and at sea even worse”.198 Keep Britain Tidy was concerned that “switching to compostables for coffee cups and other packaging” were “ill thought through” moves, since “the BS EN 13432 standard for composting requires industrial composting and yet many compostables used by consumers may not make it into these schemes and will end up in home composting or contaminating normal recycling streams”.199

75.ESA highlighted that “there are a number of barriers to ensuring compostables work effectively with the waste management system and actually offer an environmental benefit”.200 Industrially compostable packaging should be “sent to an In-Vessel Composting facility (IVC)”.201 However, the Government’s “preferred option for treating food waste is AD [anaerobic digestion], meaning that the infrastructure portfolio will move increasingly in that direction and away from IVC”.202 Compostable packaging “is not currently processed by Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plants, and so operators will seek to extract it as they do with plastic contamination, and send it to Energy from Waste [a type of incineration] or landfill”.203 ESA stated that compostables are therefore “likely to cause confusion to consumers” because:

Depending on local infrastructure, consumers will need to be told to dispose of their compostable packaging with food waste only if it is sent to IVC. If their food waste is sent to AD it should go in the residual bin. This may be a perceived backwards step for consumers who would otherwise recycle the plastic alternative or may lead to contamination of dry recycling.204

76.Keep Britain Tidy concluded that “the drive to introduce bioplastics, biodegradable plastics and compostable plastics is being done with limited emphasis on explaining the purpose of these materials to the public or consideration of whether they are in fact better from an environmental perspective than the plastic packaging they replace”.205 Peter Maddox from WRAP was “disappointed with the way the biodegradable and compostable plastics have been discussed across the sector” and added that he “would encourage the industry to really think about end of life, about how it integrates with the existing system, because it could create some difficult consequences”.206

77.Vegware, a compostable packaging manufacturer, stated that “where suitable composting is not possible, we advise people to put our products in general waste”.207 Vegware stated that “the benefits of choosing lower carbon, renewable, recycled or reclaimed materials apply no matter what happens to them after use” and stated that studies showed that incineration of their products “produces more heat than newspaper, wood or food waste”, which is beneficial when producing energy from waste, and that “it produces no volatile gases and leaves little residue”.208 It added that “in landfill, studies show that compostable packaging is inert and does not give off methane”. 209

78.We asked Andy Sweetman, Chair of the BBIA and Marketing Manager for Futamura, how contamination of recycling by compostable packaging could be alleviated. He emphasised that “we need consistency across the country and simple labelling so the consumer simply knows, ‘That is a conventional plastic and I do this with it. That is a bio material or food waste and I do that with it’”.210 Then, “we need a joined-up approach in terms of the actual composting and organic recycling infrastructure”.211 He suggested that:

in the UK we are very strongly down the anaerobic digestion route only or composting. The model is to link the two together, to combine AD with traditional in-vessel composting, as is done in The Maltings in Selby in the UK. Both systems are put together, which means you get the energetic value from the waste and the food waste, and then you get the secondary soil remediation benefit from the composting phase.212

79.Richard Kirkman, Chief Technology & Innovation Officer at Veolia UK & Ireland, agreed that consistent labelling was required.213 However he considered that compostable packaging “doesn’t really fit the existing infrastructure, so we just need to be a bit cautious”.214

80.The Minister stated that Defra had also “been cautious” about biodegradable and compostable packaging and was “concerned that a lot is being sold as compostable, but it still depends on what your local council does with it”.215 In its consultation on consistency in recycling collections, Defra stated that:

Appropriate treatment infrastructure would […] need to be in place before we considered adding compostable plastics to the core list of materials to be collected for recycling. Until this point, it may be necessary for consumers to be advised [to] put this type of packaging in the residual waste bin.216

Closed loop systems

81.As outlined above, industrially compostable packaging must be collected and processed separately to other packaging waste. Compostable packaging is used in some closed loop systems, where it is distributed and collected on-site, for example sporting events, festivals and workplaces with catering facilities, including the Parliamentary estate (which is supplied with compostable packaging by Vegware).217 Peter Maddox from WRAP stated that “there are some instances where [compostables] are particularly good […] where you have a closed system and you can control what goes in and out”, such as during the Olympics.218 However, a lack of consumer awareness can still cause contamination of waste streams in these systems.219

82.Vegware stated that “composting facilities have a very low tolerance for contamination” and that when its clients implemented a composting scheme, keeping contamination to a minimum could “sometimes be a challenge”.220 Vegware explained that “many client sites achieve this correct bin choice behaviour, but it can often be a challenge requiring extra staff training, posters, and troubleshooting”.221 Vegware has also “put considerable time and investment since 2012 into creating a network of trade waste collections for our products, going to suitable composting facilities or anaerobic digestion plants with a composting phase”.222 As a result, “suitable trade waste collections are available in around 1,200 postcode districts – amounting to 38% of the UK’s 3,114 postcode districts”.223 Vegware has also recently launched its own composting collection service.224

83.Although industrially compostable plastic packaging is appealing as an alternative to conventional plastics, the general waste management infrastructure to manage it is not yet fit for purpose. In addition, we are concerned that consumers are confused about how to dispose of compostable packaging, particularly if there is no dedicated compostable waste bin available. This could result in contamination of dry recycling as well as littering. We therefore don’t support a general increase in the use of industrially compostable packaging at this stage. It can, however, play a role in closed loop environments, such as sporting events and workplaces with catering facilities, where there is a dedicated disposal and collection service. This must be accompanied by robust communication to avoid contamination of recycling.

161 Royal Society of Chemistry (PPP0015) para 3i

162 WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme) (PPP0027) para 6

166 Green Alliance (PPP0009), Summary

169 Sustainability, Garçon Wines, last accessed September 2019; Annex A

175 UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) (PPP0016), para 7

176 UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) (PPP0016), para 7

181 Environmental Services Association (PPP0012), para 10




187 Packaging waste directive and standards for compostability, British Plastics Federation, last accessed 2 September 2019

188 Packaging waste directive and standards for compostability, British Plastics Federation, last accessed 2 September 2019

189 Futamura UK Ltd (PPP0017), para 4.3

190 See Annex A

192 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Standards for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics: call for evidence, July 2019

193 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Standards for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics: call for evidence, July 2019, p 15

198 Green Alliance (PPP0009), para 3.1.2

199 Keep Britain Tidy (PPP0022) para 1.3.4

200 Environmental Services Association (PPP0012), para 11

201 Environmental Services Association (PPP0012), para 12

202 Environmental Services Association (PPP0012), para 12

203 Environmental Services Association (PPP0012), para 12

204 Environmental Services Association (PPP0012), para 13

205 Keep Britain Tidy (PPP0022), para 3.2

207 Vegware (PPP0014), para 3.4.7

208 Vegware (PPP0014), para 3.4.7

209 Vegware (PPP0014), para 3.4.7

216 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Consultation on consistency in household and business recycling collections in England, February 2019, p 23

217 Q70; UK Parliament to dramatically reduce plastic use through new compostable products, UK Parliament, last accessed 2 September 2019; The University of Sheffield, Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures (PPP0011), para 2.3

220 Vegware (PPP0014), para 2.2

221 Vegware (PPP0014), para 2.2

222 Vegware (PPP0014), para 5.a.2

223 Vegware (PPP0014), para 5.a.2

224 Close the Loop: Solutions for composting Vegware and food waste, Vegware, last accessed 2 September 2019

Published: 12 September 2019