Sold and marketed as compostable, eco-friendly food packaging, their popularity has exploded in Australia.
Plant fiber and bioplastic packaging can now be found in thousands of cafes and takeaway shops, as well as supermarkets for use at home.
Many consumers are happy to swap single-use plastic for compostable packaging.
But is it really better than the plastic it replaced?
What is compostable packaging?
This is food packaging designed to decompose in the soil when placed in a home composting bin or an industrial Food Organics and Garden Organics (FOGO) plant – the place where your green bins are emptied .
It is usually made from plants such as sugarcane, which are processed into paper-like materials or bioplastics.
Sometimes the packaging is made of both: a paper-like material, which is then lined with bioplastic to reduce liquid seepage.
Is this regulated?
There is a voluntary certification system through the Australian Bioplastics Association, but because the industry is unregulated, all kinds of materials are classed as “compostable.”
Although you may see confusing labels placed on packaging, only two labels prove that a product meets Australian composting standards.
But seeing this label doesn’t mean your packaging will actually be composted.
Only South Australia has a statewide system for placing compostable packaging in FOGO green bins.
So if you throw away the packaging from home or elsewhere in most of the country, it probably won’t be composted.
Few public spaces have FOGO bins and most are not allowed to accept compostable packaging.
So, in the vast majority of places, it must be thrown into red bins, and therefore ends up in landfills.
Are landfill compostable materials better for the environment?
It’s not yet clear.
When organic materials such as plant-based packaging decompose in landfills, they generate emissions of a very potent greenhouse gas, methane.
Landfills are a huge emitter in Australia, contributing around 30 percent of the country’s methane emissions.
So while some compostable packaging doesn’t last virtually forever in landfills like plastic does, faster degradation in landfills also has a greater impact on climate change.
There are other disadvantages as well.
Tony Chappel, CEO of the NSW Environment Protection Agency, says the more inert – or chemically stable – a material is, the safer it is in landfills. Compostable material is not inert.
If the material decomposes, there is a greater risk of potentially harmful chemicals leaking into the environment.
What chemicals are in compostable packaging?
One of the thousands of problematic substances found in many compostable packaging is PFAS, known as a “forever chemical.”
PFAS – or “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” – are a group of chemicals used in products ranging from cookware and clothing to cosmetics and food packaging.
They are popular because they repel water and oil and help insulate heat.
Unfortunately, their other property is that they do not decompose in the environment.
And according to the Australian government, they could be harmful to human health, with potential risks to our liver, intestines and thyroid.
A 2021 study by the Australian Packaging Covenant found that almost 30% of compostable packaging had high levels of PFAS.
And the general consensus is that we don’t want any of this ending up in the compost used to grow our food.
What do we do about it?
Compostable packaging is now banned in green bins in several states.
These chemicals, on the one hand, but also because of other plastic packaging which unduly ends up in compost bins.
Messages about what is allowed and what is not are confusing.
Although ‘compostable’ products meet Australian certification standards, a CSIRO study found their presence in the soil meant earthworms and roots did not grow normally.
BioPak, Australia’s largest producer of compostable packaging, says it has replaced PFAS in all its products.
Co-founder and chief executive Gary Smith says the company has worked hard to ensure it isn’t replaced by something worse.
The packaging industry says PFAS will no longer be in its products this year, and the federal government says it will regulate them by 2025.
So, should we use compostable packaging?
It depends who you ask.
Gayle Sloan is the head of the Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association of Australia, which represents all industries that deal with waste and recycling.
Ms Sloan says compostable packaging could help if we had a system in place around it to ensure it is safe and actually ends up in the compost.
She says manufacturers should take responsibility for ensuring this happens, but for now, compostable packaging is not something we should be encouraging more of.
“It’s a good idea in theory, but in practice we don’t have the system needed on a large scale,” she says.
BioPak’s Gary Smith says it’s waste to send to landfill, but even then it’s better than single-use plastics.
He says the answer is regulation ensuring compostable packaging is safe and banning any other type of packaging so there is no more confusion or greenwashing.
Mr Smith says composting of BioPak packaging in South Australia is working well and could serve as a model for what should happen across the country.
Could the bans be lifted soon?
Mr Chappel says the NSW EPA is willing to reconsider compostable products’ place in green bins – but probably not in the next five years.
He says the organization is leading the way nationally with its testing of materials and their banning.
“I know that a number of states are doing a lot more testing because of our work and I understand that some of these results are also leading to similar results to what we’ve seen,” he says.
Environment ministers across the country have agreed on a uniform approach – whether or not this will be a victory for compostable packaging remains to be seen.
Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says that when we use single-use items, they should have the lowest possible impact on the environment.
“Compostable packaging is part of this story,” she says.
“I think we should start by reducing the amount of waste we create.”