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Guide to Compostable Food Packaging

The foodservice sector uses disposable food packaging as it makes serving food easy and hygienic. But after use it...


The foodservice sector uses disposable food packaging as it makes serving food easy and hygienic. But after use it turns into waste and creates a real challenge of reducing the environmental impact of this “convenience”. It’s estimated that as many as three billion coffee cups are sold in Australia every year. And most of these aren’t recycled – they’re piling up in the landfill and escaping into our rivers, parks and marine systems. Takeaway cups and takeaway food containers (including coffee cups) contribute 23% (or the second-largest category) of litter by volume in NSW, according to the Keep Australia Beautiful – National Litter Index 2014–15.

What can we do to reduce waste?
•         Reduce food waste
•         Use reusable containers whenever possible
•         Use compostable food packaging

Even with a significant shift towards reusable food and drink containers we are far from eliminating disposable packaging.

We need to manage it better – to put a system in place where food waste and food packaging can be collected and processed together and increase the likelihood of avoiding landfill.

Why use Compostable disposables?

We can simplify waste collection – compostable packaging can be disposed of together with food waste, no sorting needed. And no contamination for recyclables waste streams – the sad truth about paper or plastic recycling for food packaging is that once you put food on a plate it becomes dirty and cannot be recycled. Same rule for all your pretty acai bowls and chia smoothies, they all end up at the landfill – not so pretty, right?
But when food packaging is compostable and disposed together with food waste it can be processed and turned into compost. And used to grow more food.

Is it that simple?

Not really – there are a few challenges along the way

“Compostable” packaging is not all the same

There are different types of compostable products and they require different composting processes. Some are suitable for home composting and worm farms, while others require a special set of conditions available only at industrial composting facilities – we will explain the difference below (define the compostables)

2. There is no universal labelling system for compostable packaging
As it is a relatively new industry, there is a fair amount of confusing and even “greenwashing” information. It’s hard to differentiate different types of packaging and answer the simple questions: is this box compostable? What grade of compostability does it have?

3. There is no system in place for waste disposal and collection
We all need to work together on these challenges to make the concept workable in practice!

Define the compostables: suitable for home or commercial composting process

Composting refers to the process of producing compost through aerobic decomposition of biodegradable organic matter. The decomposition is performed primarily by aerobes, although larger creatures such as ants, nematodes, and oligochaete worms also contribute.

Composting can be divided into the two areas; home composting and industrial composting. Both types of composting use the same biological processes, however techniques and different factors must be taken into account

Greenmark products suitable for home/organics composting (these products can also be processed at an industrial composting facility):

  • Products made from sugarcane bagasse or bamboo fibers: plates, trays, cups and clamshells
  • Wooden servingware
  • Wooden cutlery
  • Cardboard trays

Greenmark products suitable for industrial composting only:

  • Paper cups with PLA lining – Cup-To-Grow
  • Food containers with PLA lining – Box-To-Grow
  • PLA clear cups and deli containers
  • PLA cutlery

PLA bioplastics are produced from PLA (poly-lactic-acid) harvested from corn starch, which is a natural, annually renewable resource. The production of PLA produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional plastic production. PLA cutlery can be composted in commercial compost facilities.

While commercial composting is not widely available in Australia, statistics for home and community composting are encouraging, particularly in Victoria where 66% households use home composting. Furthermore, with the current government initiatives across Australia encouraging home composting and changing the situation with organic and food waste stream processing we are already beginning to see a positive change.

Is Recyclable food packaging being Recycled?

Most of recyclable food packaging is contaminated with food after use and cannot be recycled.

The sad truth about recycling food packaging is that once a paper plate or tray, or cup is contaminated with food – it’s not recyclable. So a few dirty plates can send the whole recycling lot straight to the landfill.

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