When David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II aired in 2018 and revealed the extent of marine pollution, plastic packaging became public enemy number one. People demanded action from businesses. Plastic packaging became the most urgent topic of all the emails, phone calls and social media comments Riverford received.
In the years since, public pressure has led to positive changes, with unnecessary plastic being removed even from some supermarket shelves. But it has also led to a lot of greenwash. Changes have been made only to the packaging that is visible (not the mountains of plastic used in supply chains), and some alternative materials have been rushed into practice without being properly understood, either by businesses or by consumers.
Last week, I was surprised to see fellow veg box business Abel & Cole announce they are ditching compostable plastic packaging in favour of non-compostable. Their argument is that compostable plastic fails to break down and is not truly sustainable.
The reality – as usual with questions of sustainability – is much more complex. There are several types of degradable plastic: oxydegradable (which just breaks down into microplastics, and really should be banned), compostable (which requires industrial temperatures of up to 70 degrees in the compost heap), and home compostable (a legal standard meaning it will break down quickly and completely at ambient temperatures).
Riverford only uses home compostable materials. Our home compostable packaging is TUV certified, meaning it has undergone rigorous testing by an external body. We also spent two years trialling it ourselves, and are confident that it breaks down in home compost conditions with no significant residue.
Crucially, because we deliver repeatedly to environmentally motivated customers, we are able to operate a closed-loop system, collecting any packaging that customers cannot compost or recycle at home. Indeed, I compost everything returned to us myself, and use it to grow more vegetables.
It is true there are some risks to be mitigated. Home compostable plastic can pollute the recycling stream if disposed of incorrectly – but we have made sure our customers are aware of the difference (and as only 6% of soft plastic bags and films are actually recycled in the UK, this seems like a questionable objection). If added to other compostable kitchen waste, it may be mistaken for regular plastic and cause the whole batch of compost to be sent to landfill – which is why we ask our customers to return the packaging to us if they cannot compost at home.
But not all businesses are able to create a closed-loop system. In reality, it is impossible for any business to implement a responsible cradle-to-grave lifecycle for their packaging while every local authority has a different approach to kerbside collection. What one customer can compost or recycle, another cannot – so which material do you choose?
Of all the ‘recyclable’ plastic used in the UK, Greenpeace estimates only 12% is actually recycled; the rest is exported to a questionable fate in a developing country, or incinerated. And despite a huge amount of effort and goodwill from dutiful citizens and some businesses, recycling rates in this country are falling year on year.
We urgently need an intelligent, long-term, national policy on what materials will be recycled, composted, incinerated or landfilled. As environment minister, Michael Gove promised a unified kerbside collection system; a lie. In the current vacuum, effort is wasted on ill-informed company policies and headline-grabbing claims that will deliver little of value. To have abandoned policy to individual choices and market forces is an abdication of responsibility and a failure of government.
Home compostable plastic is the right solution for Riverford, but it cannot work as it should for all businesses without changes to our current waste system. But rather than giving up on it, we are pushing for action.
We are currently part of a trial with our packaging supplier TIPA, environmental organisation Hubbub, and the University of Sheffield, which hopes to inform government legislation. The results of the trial will be responded to by Defra, which has called for further evidence to support the case for the “wide inclusion of compostable packaging in the UK’s bio-waste treatment streams”.
We are always open to sharing our research with competitors, so that together we can better tackle the problem of plastic pollution – while we all wait for the government to get their broken system sorted.