If you take one of Ellen Burns’ energy bars, eat it and throw the wrapper in the compost bin, 13 weeks later you will find nothing but dirt.

As Australia stares down a recycling crisis that threatens the viability of a multi-billion dollar industry and potentially thousands of jobs, some small businesses like Ms Burns’ have scrambled to find new types of packaging that have no need for a yellow kerbside bin.

The Ballarat-based entrepreneur said her business is one of only three in Australia that uses home-compostable packaging, which is plant-based and imported from the United Kingdom. “When I started running my own business it kind of seemed contradictory because I was creating all this plastic waste and putting that out into the world,” Ms Burns said.

“It’s a bit more noticeable when you have literally boxes of plastic pouches rather than as a consumer you might only be using one a day or a couple of plastic packages a day.”

While there has been considerable improvement to public awareness of Australia’s waste woes, home-compostable packaging is only one step in a much longer journey towards fixing the recycling industry’s systematic flaws.

How does home-compostable packaging work?

The bioplastic packaging that Ellen Burns uses is accredited by the Australasian Bioplastics Association [ABA] and made from cellulose derived from plants like eucalyptus and sugarcane. Member of the ABA’s Technical Committee, Warwick Hall, said testing of compostable packaging is undertaken in conjunction with German firm DIN CERTCO to ensure there are no toxic residues.

“The product breaks down into carbon dioxide, water and carbon biomass just the same as a tomato or an orange,” he said.

But Mr Hall said the wrapping may not biodegrade properly alongside other forms of general waste and that the ideal conditions of a compost bin are needed. “It needs to be composted because landfill conditions vary so much that a material may or may not biodegrade under those conditions.

“Others are dry landfills where no oxygen can get in there and nothing biodegrades or it takes an awfully long time.”

“We’ve all read reports about landfill being dug up and people finding vegetable matter and old newspapers,” he said.

Is home-compostable packaging economically viable?

Over the past three years Ellen Burns has spent her entire life savings on setting up her business and establishing the new compostable packaging. “Between plastic and this, it’s probably maybe 10 times more expensive,” she said. “I understand why the bigger businesses don’t do it, because for them to switch all their products over it would actually be a huge amount of money.” Ms Burns primarily stocks cafes and health food stores and said there is a greater appetite for environmentally friendly products among her target market.


“This was my first big order of custom packaging, so for me it always going to be a huge step up anyway,” she said.

“So I thought it was worth investing in what my beliefs are and what my brand stands for, rather than try to minimise the cost.”

But Ms Burns said due to the relatively small size of her business and the lower cost of purchasing packaging in bulk orders, the price increase passed on to consumers is minimal. “In terms of packaging per wrapper, you’re talking probably 10 to 15 cents difference per bar.”

 

PHOTO: Photos of Ellen Burns’ packaging taken five weeks after they were placed in a compost bin. (Supplied: Ellen Burns)

Soft plastic problems present an opportunity for home compost

Unless placed in dedicated recycling bins found at most supermarkets, traditional plastic food packaging presents a particular problem, with only a handful of regional councils able to process them from kerbside recycling bins.

Bioplastics are derived from renewable substances, but can include a broad range of products such as biodegradable starch blends, polyesters or regenerable cellulose — each with varying environmental impacts.The 2016-17 Australian Plastics Recycling Survey stated that the amount of biodegradable plastic being composted is unknown but estimated that less than 100 tonnes was undertaken nationally. That is compared to 3,513,100 tonnes of plastic consumed in the same year, of which 11.8 per cent was recycled.

A June 2018 report released by the Senate Environment and Communications Reference Committee described Australia’s recycling system as being in ‘grave danger’ due to China’s ban on the import of some recyclables, along with underinvestment in the domestic industry. The report points to the “enormity of problems created by plastics” with many municipal recycling systems unable to sort food wrappers from other harder plastics including bottles and containers.

What does the future hold for bioplastics?

In April the Federal and State Governments agreed that all Australian packaging should be recyclable, combustible or compostable by 2025 — a decision Warwick Hall said provides momentum to the burgeoning bioplastics industry.

 

“Our conventional thinking for recycling is, we take it away and we melt or we crush it up and generally just physically recycle it into another form,” he said.

“In this case it’s the same concept, but just organic rather than conventional recycling … it’s not intended to replace conventional recycling, it’s another means.”

While there are industrial composting options available already, Mr Hall said the ultimate success of compostable packaging will depend on the willingness of consumers to change their waste and recycling habits.

“Petrochemical plastics are pumped out by the hundreds of thousands of tonnes and that gives you efficiencies whereas bioplastics are made in smaller quantities and therefore you don’t get those same efficiencies,” he said.

“We wouldn’t think that all packaging will become compostable and certainly not the majority of packaging will become compostable but it is an option available.”

PHOTO: Composting has become more frequently used among Australian households but whether this will extend to food packaging remains to be seen. (Flickr: Nic McFee)

First posted on ABC News on 27/11/18 Read more here