To Compost or to Recycle? That is the Question.

To Compost or to Recycle? That is the Question.

‘As a responsible food operator, should I use compostable packaging or recyclable packaging?  Which option is the more environmentally friendly choice?

The ‘compostable or recyclable’ question is frequently wrestled with in the catering and hospitality industry.  It has been the topic of recent public debate but opinion currently stands divided.  When it comes to deciding between the two, how can we begin to understand which is the more environmentally friendly choice?  This decision is made more challenging by the fact that both compostable and recyclable packaging have their environmental merits.  Compostables are made from renewable resources and recyclables often contain a percentage of recycled content reducing the amount of virgin material required.  However, these ‘front end’ benefits do not mean that either type of packaging offers a one size fits all solution for the responsible food operator.  The reason for this is because the ‘back end’ environmental impact is just as important (some might even argue more important) than the front end when it comes to determining whether the packaging is an environmentally friendly choice.

The secret is to consider the holistic environmental footprint of each packaging type.  What does this mean?  To properly understand whether any product has environmental benefits, or can be considered environmentally friendly, it is not enough to only consider one aspect of the product’s life cycle.  All products have a life cycle which includes all elements of production (the front end) and all elements of disposal (the back end).  For example, raw materials are sourced, they are manufactured into component parts, they are assembled, distributed, used, and sometimes re-used before finally being disposed of.  Each stage impacts the environment in some way.  In the case of compostable and recyclable packaging too often the front end benefits alone influence the decision.  It is easy to understand why.  The disposal stage is arguably the most challenging.  However, the truth is that if this stage is not properly accounted for it can undo the front end environmental benefits for each packaging type.  In short, compostable packaging must be composted and recyclable packaging must be recycled at their end of life.

So, how can we begin to reconcile the disposal stage?  The first important step is to recognise that neither compostable nor recyclable packaging is a one size fits all solution for every location where a food service operator might be based.  The reason for this is because the disposal and waste management infrastructure can differ significantly between different locations.  These locations don’t have to be at opposite ends of the country to be different.  Incredibly, the disposal infrastructure can differ between floors in the same building.

When deciding on which packaging type to use it is vital to consider where the packaging in question will be used and ultimately disposed of.  Arguably, to be considered as truly environmentally friendly the packaging going in needs to match the routes out.  Decision makers should consider whether the necessary infrastructure is in place to ensure that compostable packaging will be composted and recyclable packaging will be recycled.  I always try to be mindful of these three tips:

#Tip 1:  Consider how either packaging type matches the in-house disposal facilities available.  A separate receptacle should be available for both food waste and compostable packaging, and similarly for recyclable packaging products.

#Tip 2:  Consider how either packaging type matches the end of life facilities available to the nominated waste management provider.  Recyclables should be sent either directly to a recycler, or to a Materials Recycling Facility for sorting.  Compostables should be sent to an In-Vessel Composting facility.  In some areas, Anaerobic Digestion (AD) facilities with the necessary pre-treatment process are also available but most do not accept compostable packaging.

#Tip 3:  It is important to have a method for monitoring contamination and improving when necessary.  The only materials which should go in your food waste bin are food and compostable packaging.  For your recyclables, it is important to limit the amount contamination from food waste or non-recyclable products.

Undertaking this matching exercise may seem like a daunting prospect but it can be achieved with great effect.  One example which stands out is the Hubbub Manchester City Centre Cup Trial, aiming to address the disposal stage of the hotly debated coffee cup.  With the support of major high street chains including Caffe Nero, Costa, Greggs, KFC, McDonald’s, Nestle, Pret a Manger and Waitrose, Hubbub started the process of creating the necessary disposal infrastructure to recycle the average high street coffee cup.  As the majority of paper cups used in the trial location are recyclable, Hubbub focused efforts on joining the dots to facilitate the recycling of all cups collected into gardening equipment donated to local community gardens.  Hubbub and their partners demonstrated that when disposable packaging suits the context of use, it is possible to create long lasting environmental and social value.