Speakers from across the plastics supply chain have explained that there is ‘concern’ in the industry with regards to biodegradable or compostable plastic packaging.
However, in response, others have said that the material can be a success if systems incorporating it are implemented correctly.
This was among the topics debated from a panel discussion at the annual Recoup Conference last Thursday (September 26), which was held at the KingsGate Conference Centre in Peterborough.
The discussion moved on to biodegradable plastics following a speech from Liz Smith, global packaging director of haircare at Unilever, who was discussing her company’s efforts to increase the recycling rate of its product packaging.
Ms Smith outlined some of the steps her company had taken, including introducing black plastic bottles which can be processed at recycling facilities and its efforts as part of the Plastics Pact.
She explained that biodegradable plastics are adding to the problem as the material confuses consumers into thinking “they disappear in the environment, which simply isn’t the case”.
In response, Carsten Larson, recycling director of materials specialists Dow Europe, said she would be “very concerned” if clients began to demand biodegradable packaging for their products.
“People think that bio is better, and I would be deeply alarmed if I see packaging going onto the market which claims to degrade in two weeks, for example” Ms Larson said.
She added: “The tricky part is explaining biodegradation, it is a long process so we can’t go down that road.”
However, after an audience member pointed out that there have been some “success stories” with alternative plastics, including the Co-Operative supermarket rolling out compostable bags in 1,000 of its shops in areas with a food waste collection, as the bag can ‘double up’ as a food waste caddy liner.
Biodegradeable and compostable plastics have been in the spotlight in recent months as companies roll out initiatives to meet growing public demand for environmentally friendly options.
Many have questioned if they help tackle the plastic pollution problem, and concerns have also been raised that they can act as a contaminant in general recycling bins. Those in favour however say it is a viable alternative to plastic and it will decompose naturally.
The government is currently seeking evidence to help develop standards for biodegradable, compostable and bio-based plastics, which expires next month (see letsrecycle.com story).
Prior to this, the panel discussed the various schemes their respective companies have undertaken recently to increase plastics recycling.
Chris Hanlon, commercial manager at Biffa Polymers, discussed the company’s milk bottle operations while James Bull, head of packaging at supermarket chain Tesco, spoke about the increased levels of public interest in ‘sustainability’ and the various bring-back schemes the company is offering for ‘soft plastics’, such as carrier and bread bags.
The panel all agreed that an ‘evidence-based approach’ is needed to tackle the problem, and that while steps have been taken, “a lot more needs to be done”.