By Stefanie Novakowski
In Canada alone, $31B worth of food is wasted each year. Packaging can reduce food waste by preventing items from perishing and allowing for transport and portion control. However, as of 2019 both the provincial government in British Columbia and the federal government of Canada have announced policies to ban single-use plastic products, and several similar policies have been proposed or enacted at the municipal and regional level.
Compostable plastics may seem like the perfect solution, and developments in manufacturing and use of these products are clearly relevant to government regulatory bodies. Unlike regular plastics, compostable plastics are manufactured with additives, allowing the plastic to be broken down into natural elements (eg, water, carbon dioxide, methane). To be certified as compostable, plastics must first go through standardized testing. However there’s no requirement that the conditions used in these tests match those utilized by industrial facilities that process compost or plastics. As a result, many compostable plastics aren’t broken down sufficiently in processing facilities, and since there’s no labelling to identify which plastics meet this more specific criteria, most compostable facilities and municipal recycling programs won’t accept any compostable plastics. The end result – these plastics are sorted out in a pre-screening process and end up in a landfill.
The good news? British Columbia is a hotbed for innovation in new compostable plastic materials (e.g. Good Natured Bioplastics) and processes for effective bio-degradation (e.g. NetZeroWaste). Cutting edge research at BC’s universities combined with entrepreneurial ventures from local industry hold the promise of creative solutions.
A Way Forward
To help find some consensus on the future of compostable plastics, the Science and Policy Integration Network (SPIN) and Recycling Council of British Columbia partnered to host a one-day workshop on compostable plastics and the circular economy in November 2019. Led by Dr. Love-Ese Chile, from Grey to Green Sustainable Solutions, the workshop featured a morning of short talks from manufacturers, processors, and researchers with experience in compostable plastics. In the afternoon, the SPIN facilitated a breakout discussion and townhall to identify shared concerns and action items for moving compostable plastics forward in BC.
“The circular economy includes or encompasses regenerative systems that can restore, revitalize, and regenerate the materials they use. This is a vision for tomorrow and a future that we can be proud of.”Dr. Love-Ese Chile, Grey to Green Sustainable Solutions
Policy and Regulation
Legislation regarding composting is still fairly new, first appearing in the 1980s. Today, there is still limited regulation on compostable products, but extensive regulation around processing and use of compost at the municipal, provincial, and federal level, as well as within First Nations and Métis governments. In BC, the Environmental Management Act and Public Health Act – Organic Matter Recycling Regulation (OMRR) governs construction and operation of composting facilities and production, distribution, sale, storage, use, and applications for biosolids and compost. First enacted in 2002, amendments to the Act are currently underway, and include the possibility of allowing compostable plastics as acceptable feedstock for composting facilities. Before this is possible, there are still gaps to address, including;
- How compostable plastics are labelled;
- How facilities update operations to handle compostable plastics; and
- How certification for composting plastics can better match the need of processing facilities
Currently, there are a lack of studies examining the breakdown of compostable plastics under conditions that match those in composting facilities. While there is an immediate need for evidence-based solutions, the amount of time and money required to examine composting and degradation remains a barrier to further research. An additional challenge? There is very little information or regulation around the additives used in compostable plastics, which are often proprietary blends. While an individual product may only have small amounts of additives, the large amount of plastic used in society means these additives can accumulate in high quantities or concentrations, with currently unknown impacts.
The Environmental Impact
Despite an increase in demand for compostable plastics, there is still limited knowledge on the possible environmental impacts of compostable plastics. This includes studies examining the breakdown of these plastics in soil, even though many plastics end up buried in soil, either as waste or in composting facilities. When not broken down fully, these plastics end up as microplastics. These microplastics are consumed by biological organisms, including worms, snails, and cows. Since these animals are unable to breakdown the microplastics into natural products, they build up over time. Pesticides can also accumulate around the surface of microplastics, increasing the concentrations being ingested.
The Next Steps
It’s clear that the way forward will be a slow process and require a collaborative plan that meets the resources and needs of manufacturers, processors, and policy-makers. This may require municipalities coming together to create a regional push for provincial-wide education and legislation. Collaboration will also be key to filling the gaps in our knowledge, and helping processors identify which products can be composted in their facilities. For example, the International Field Testing Program, produced by the Compost Council Research & Education Foundation (CCREF) and BSIbio Packaging Solutions / BÉSICS, is creating an open source data set to show what products degrade under what conditions – key information for processors and manufacturers.
Identifying who will provide the financial investments for research, education, and development of new standards and products will be a key step in moving forward. This includes investment in processing facilities who are supposed to handle the new products, as well as develop standardized labelling to help consumers and processors identify compostable plastics, such as the regulations adopted in the state of Washington. Grassroots community-level education can help educate consumers, including individuals and business-owners, but additional steps may be required to help enforce the adoption of new standards. For example, new policies can create incentives to drive a circular economy, as well penalties to encourage adoption of new policies. Policies that restrict the manufacturing of products that can’t be recycled or composted by any facility, such as most No. 7 plastics, may also help.
With growing pressure to reduce our collective environmental footprint, more municipalities and countries are banning single-use plastics. There is increasing demand for compostable plastics, and with this demand comes an increase in manufacturing of these products and an increase in attention from policy-makers. However, it’s clear that compostable plastics are not the immediate solution, and businesses still need to find easy, readily available, and culturally acceptable options that will allow consumers to reduce and reuse, not just recycle.