Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Plastic Free Harrogate & Vegware

For a couple of months now I've been involved in a group called Plastic Free Harrogate.

Among other things we highlight local businesses and the environmentally friendly changes they make to the way they run things, hoping to inspire others to follow suit, but also, making sure the public knows which local independents are EVEN more worth supporting. 

So far in Harrogate we've seen businesses switch from plastic to paper straws, make them only available on request, or stop offering them all together. 
One coffeeshop even decided to ban the use of disposable coffee cups and will only serve take-away coffee to people bringing their own cups! 

More and more coffeeshops are switching from conventional and difficult to recycle take-away solutions to compostable ones. Vegware being the biggest name in the compostable packaging world.

The waste collection situation in Harrogate being as it is (limited, to say the least) I've been a bit sceptical about this change ... 
Is it worth the extra financial investment if these items go straight to landfill or incineration anyway?

Image By Vegware

So I reached out to the company to get some clarity.
Spoiler alert: I didn't get much, but the headache it gave me dissipated at the end ... so read on!

I mainly wanted an answer to the following questions:

Q: Don't these see-through compostable drink containers get mistaken for oil based plastic, get put in the recycling bin and as such contaminate whole batches of plastic (and see it go to landfill instead)?

A: If our products were to end up in the dry mixed recycling stream, they would be removed at the sorting stage of processing.

My thought on this?
At this point I'm not convinced they would actually be removed, as I've read many articles about this contamination problem, yet also know that the amount of PLA compared to fossil-fuel based plastic is so low that there isn't an issue at this stage.

It is also worth remembering, for all recycling but in particular polymer recycling, different materials are incompatible. Contamination widely exists between traditional polymers making recycling very difficult.
I suppose one solution would be for coffeeshop staff to tell their customers to throw their take-away cups in general waste unless they have a HotBin Compost bin

Cups thrown into the council's bins dotted around Harrogate go straight to incineration anyway, so no risk of contamination there.

Q: Don't compostables release methane (just like food waste) when sent to landfill?

A: When it comes to landfill, it is a common misconception that our materials break down there. In landfill, conditions are actually designed to prevent materials breaking down. By restricting moisture and oxygen, microbial activity is reduced. 

Yet food waste does degrade over time ... and releases methane.
According to this website:
The process of layering general waste creates methane, which has a global warming potential 21 times grater than carbon dioxide and methane from landfill represents 40% of all the UK's methane.

So wouldn't the same happen to products made from other compostable substances ... especially when they are contaminated or in contact with food waste?

Upon further investigation: As demonstrated by Natureworks’ peer-reviewed article in the journal of Polymer Degradation and Stability, Ingeo (PLA-plastic) appears to be essentially stable in landfills with no statistically significant quantity of methane released. Natureworks is the world’s largest producer of PLA, and their website is very informative. See further explanation here:

Q: Lastly, what is the benefit of Vegware in an area where there is no such thing as food waste collection?

A: We appreciate that some of our customers do not currently have access to food waste collections or commercial composting routes. 
We believe that Vegware is the first step in changing attitudes towards food waste recycling in the UK. As with any innovation, you need the customer demand in order to change the infrastructure. That is why we are so grateful for our customers’ commitment: as more people use Vegware and demand composting routes, it allows us to convince more waste collectors that it is in their interest to collect and compost our products. We have found that it is customer demand that has encouraged waste management companies to adapt their collection services.

Even without access to composting, there are still environmental benefits of using Vegware packaging as opposed to conventional plastic disposables. The materials used in Vegware products are renewable and sustainably sourced, and create less carbon emissions in the manufacture. We believe it is better to use plant-based materials for our products, rather than depleting finite resources.

Image by Vegware

Conclusion: (borrowed and adapted from A Plastic Planet)

We need to start a serious conversation about our waste management systems & infrastructure, including industrial composting as obviously composting vast quantities of packaging at home* is not practical.

We need a food waste collection service that actually composts it, so that Vegware can be collected at the same time. 
Then we need ALL take-away products to be of the same kind, so there is no confusion as to where it goes.

* Most Vegware containers won't compost completely at home, unless you manage to create high heat in your compost bin. It is classed as commercially compostable.