AIP president explains biodegradable and compostable packaging

Biodegradable and compostable packaging are not interchangeable. Dr Carol Kilcullen-Lawrence, the national president of the Australia Institute of Packaging (AIP) explains why.

Compostable and biodegradable – two terms that are often used interchangeably, but in reality actually mean very different things.

In light of the recent Australian Environment Ministers announcement that 100 per cent of packaging in Australia will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 we need to better understand how we can really achieve this and how different this target is compared to the packaging waste streams that are in place today.

The first step is to understand the difference between compostable and biodegradable packaging.

READ: AIP will run food waste and packaging seminars at FoodTech PackTech

Everything will degrade over time but true biodegradation occurs through a biochemical process, with the aid of enzymes produced by naturally occurring microorganisms, both in the presence and absence of oxygen i.e. aerobic or anaerobic, without leaving behind any toxins, yielding only carbon dioxide, water and humus or biomass.

Biodegradable packaging is either completely or partially derived from a renewable source – like paper or starch – or, if it is petroleum based, is specifically engineered with the aid of additives, to decompose in the natural environment. Such additives change the chemical composition of the plastic.

While this does not affect its manufacturing, use or shelf life, such that it differs functionally from other plastics, it is significant at the end of life.

A biodegradable plastic will be considered a contaminant in the plastics recycling stream, as on being exposed to moisture and appropriate microorganisms, the biodegradation process will commence.

Compostable packaging has an organic origin, like sugar cane, bamboo or paper, and can broadly be classified into two types:

1. one that which will compost in a home compost; and

2. one that requires an industrial compost facility.

Industrial composting can cope with a wider range of compostable products as it involves pre-processing – where materials are ground and chipped down into smaller pieces, and in addition, industrial composting provides the higher temperatures needed for more efficient break down.

Home composting takes place at much lower temperatures and over an extended time frame, which can typically go up to a year, compared to a matter of weeks for industrial composting. And what people and organisations need to realise is that there is a different set of standards for materials suitable for home composting, which is governed by Vincotte a Belgium-based certification organisation.

While not currently available in all regions of Australia, industrial composting facilities are becoming increasingly widespread with many more councils and private companies providing bins where food scraps and compostable packaging can be disposed of within existing green waste collection services.

Known as FOGO, participating councils are considering potentially reducing landfill collections to fortnightly, allowing FOGO collections to become weekly. However, most councils also know that there will need to be significant consumer education to ensure the right types of compostable and biodegradable packaging are disposed of in such services.

One of the ideal situations to utilise compostable and biodegradable packaging is at public events where the inputs to the waste stream can be controlled by those at the arenas.

In such situations if all food packaging is manufactured from compostable organic sources and biodegradable plastics, then disposal facilities that capture this with the food waste will allow the packaging to be industrially composted together.

This is an ideal solution as many types of biodegradable and compostable packaging cannot be recycled, hence cannot be placed in kerbside recycling. It would be impossible for a consumer to identify the difference between a biodegradable PLA plastic container with a visually identical petroleum-based polymer one.

The move to biodegradable or compostable packaging is real, and with a 2025 target, now is the time to identify not only the most suitable sustainable solutions to suit each product, but to also ensure that the packaging waste streams have the capabilities to manage this change.   

Australian government and corporations aim to have 100 per cent sustainable packaging by 2025

Australia’s ambitious 2025 national packaging targets have the Australian government and leaders in sectors including food and packaging working together to create a more environmentally friendly country.

On the 25th of September, the minister for the environment, Melissa Price, joined leaders from packaging, retail, logistics, manufacturing, recycling and waste management businesses in a pledge to better manage packaging waste.

Australia’s 2025 national packaging targets were announced at an event in Melbourne, convened by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO).

The 2025 targets are for 100 per cent of Australia’s packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

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Seventy per cent of Australia’s plastic packaging should be recycled or composted and a 30 per cent average recycled content should be included across all packaging by 2025.

The goal is also to have all problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging phased out through changes in design, innovation or alternative methods.

These targets build on commitments made by commonwealth, state and territory environment ministers and the president of the Australian local government association, in April 2018, to set a sustainable path for Australia’s recyclable waste.

Price congratulated APCO, Woolworths and the initial working group of key business leaders including Coca-Cola Amatil, Goodman Fielder, Nestlé, Pact Group, Simplot and Unilever in tackling Australia’s waste challenges and supporting these targets.

To support the 2025 targets, members of the initial working group have also been joined by industry representatives and environmental groups including Aldi, Amcor, Australia Post, Tetra Pak and Goodman Fielder.

Woolworths quality and sustainability general manager, Alex Holt, said Woolworths was pleased to see such a wide range of industry players come together in support of such a worthy goal.

“Moving towards a circular economy won’t be easy, but we have the right mix of organisations on board to help make it a reality,” said Holt.

At the event, Minister Price officially launched the Australasian recycling label as an important tool for achieving the 2025 targets.

The new labelling system was developed by Planet Ark, PREP Design and APCO to help consumers better understand how to recycle packaging.

With more than 200 recycling labels currently being used in Australian packaging, the new evidence-based system is designed to combat confusion about recycling and reduce the levels of contamination in the waste stream.

Price said the recycling label provides people with easy to understand recycling information when they need it most, in those few seconds when they are deciding what bin the package goes in.

“The label removes confusion and reduces waste,” she said.

To date more than 50 Australian businesses have committed to the program.

Nestlé’s Oceania head of corporate and external relations, Margaret Stuart, said people who buy Nestlé products are increasingly wanting to know how to manage packing waste.

APCO was charged by the Australian government to make all packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

APCO is committed to reducing the environmental impact of packaging on Australian communities by moving towards a circular economy.


Australian Institute of Packaging to introduce sustainable packaging design course

The Australian Institute of Packaging (AIP) will be launching its new Introduction to Sustainable Packaging Design half-day training course.

The course is designed to assist anyone who is responsible for making packaging changes in their business to meet ‘war on waste’ questions, changes to retailer and consumer trends and behaviours, while not spending any more money.

The course will provide attendees a better understanding of the practical guidelines and criteria needed to design and develop sustainable packaging.

This includes the sustainability hierarchy of reduce, reuse then recycle, and the circular economy approach to packaging and the environment.

READ: AIP to discuss consumer & environmental trends in plastics

Discussions will also cover plastic, glass and metal packaging and their impact on the environment.

It will also cover whether the use of non-renewable resources, plant-based bioplastics, compostable and recycled materials and various tools can assist businesses to understand the full life of packaging.

Participants will be invited to bring with them a sample of their company’s packaging materials to use as a case study.

As part of the course, attendees will visit a material recovery facility to expose participants to the realities of a working these facilities, their equipment, limitation and material handling issues.

The visit to the material recovery facility will take place on the 17th October in Melbourne.

The participants will get an understanding of what is and is not separated out for possible recycling, and why.

This is followed by understanding the next stage of the recycling process after the material recovery facility.

The course aims to provide participants an understanding of the current environmental issues that are impacting the producers of packaging and the manufacturers and retailers of packaged product.

It will provide participants an understanding of sustainable packaging design and the practical design guidelines and approaches required in the packaging design process including end of life thinking.

It will also provide participants with a better view of best practice examples and case studies of award-winning sustainable packaging and save food packaging innovations.

People who are responsible for a business’s packaging design, performance or purchase specification, are encouraged to attend.

This includes packaging designers, technologists and engineers, anyone responsible for environmental strategy development, marketing and sales, and graphic designers.

Presenters include AIP education coordinator Ralph Moyle.

Moyle is an experienced food-packaging consultant, with 40 years in the food processing industry and 20 years focus on packaging.