Reducing, reusing, recycling – these words are often easier said than done. According to WRAP (The Waste and Resources Action Programme):
The world’s annual consumption of plastic materials has increased from around 5 million tonnes in the 1950s to nearly 100 million tonnes today.
This is clearly an issue that the food service and hospitality industries are looking at solving, as many different initiatives have been introduced. In 2018 the Hilton hotel chain aimed to stop using plastic straws, and now instead offer biodegradable paper straws, which has led to the reduction of 2.5 million plastic straws annually. Restaurants like Silo in Brighton use up-cycled furniture and reusable containers, and all food waste is composted. And there are now companies that help food service companies look at how all of their waste can be recycled, such as First Mile and Paper Round.
But not everything about these efforts is clear-cut. Are they really making a difference? What is better overall, reducing or recycling? And how can these ideas be put into practice?
Reducing vs Recycling
Reducing the materials that you use is a great option. You can start by self-auditing the current use of packaging such as cardboard boxes and plastic trays. This will not only give you a sense of how much is currently being used, but it will also give a better understanding of how much you really need. Having a thorough knowledge of the exact number of materials needed for a week or a month will allow you to only buy what is strictly necessary. This has the added bonus of cutting down on costs, as well as materials!
When thinking about cutting down waste, it’s also helpful to keep in mind that it’s not just the product itself that has an environmental impact. There is also the waste that is created by production methods, as well as greenhouse gases that come from the extraction of raw material. Reducing and reusing materials go hand-in-hand. Generally speaking, opting to reuse these fewer items, such as plastic bags, will help lower overall demand and therefore cause production to be reduced.
In my view it is much easier for consumers to reduce what they consume than it is for them to choose the most sustainable material to use. Let’s consider the case of cotton tote bags compared to plastic supermarket bags. In 2011 a report by the Environment Agency found that a cotton bag would have to be reused 131 times to break even with a plastic bag, in terms of the climate impact of producing each bag. So, if you’re not going to use a cotton bag over 130 times, it would appear to be better to use a plastic bag, but that would be to consider the impact of production in isolation from the impact of its use and disposal. According to Conserving Now, plastic bags can take between 400 to 1,000 years to break down in the environment, and even then the plastic particles contaminate soil, waterways, and are ingested by animals. Cotton by comparison is a natural material that has relatively little impact on the environment when it is disposed. However, it isn’t clear which environmental aspects the Environment Agency considered when they assessed the impact of cotton bag production compared to the plastic bag. Lots of similar studies focus only on greenhouse gases, yet cotton as a natural crop uses land for production and consequently is contributing to a loss of habitat and therefore biodiversity in a way in which plastic isn’t (in the production phase at least). The result is that it is very difficult for consumers to really know what impact their choices are having on the environment. Reducing our consumption, however, can only have a positive impact.
Recycling, on the other hand, does not reduce the number of items being produced. Rather, the waste products are sorted and sent to manufacturers to use it to create new products. In some ways, recycling takes more effort than reducing does, as it not always clear which materials can be recycled. Plastics are especially tricky, because there are many different types, not all of which can be recycled. There’s also a lack of standardisation – some plastics can be recycled but only in areas that have the infrastructure in place.
There’s also an entire language of packaging symbols which denote potential ways to recycle your plastics – but with some of these symbols, it’s not clear what exactly they mean. This includes symbols such as the Mobius Loop and the Green Dot.
Misunderstanding these symbols could lead to consumers putting plastics into recycling that shouldn’t be there. According to Care 2 Healthy Living:
if recycling is poorly mixed or mishandled, it just gets dumped. Secondary sifting can prove too costly and time consuming, so it is often easier for centres to just trash mismanaged recyclables. But what about when you mix one little glass jar with a big box of plastics? Depending on the features of your local recycling centre, inappropriately mixed items in the waste stream can clog up machinery, resulting in even greater costs and manpower hours.
This isn’t helped by some of the terminology that is currently used, as even materials that claim to be compostable or biodegradable sometimes end up in landfills.
Compostable vs Biodegradable
This is where the topic of plastics gets even more complicated. Not all biodegradable plastic is compostable, but all compostable plastic is biodegradable.
Biodegradable: biodegradable materials such as wool, paper, and cotton can be broken down by microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi into water, gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, and biomass. Plastic alternatives can be made using starch, orange peel, and other natural materials. However, the biodegradability of these plastics will vary greatly depending on environmental conditions, such as temperature and the presence of oxygen and water.
Most landfills are compacted so tightly that little to no oxygen can be let in. Therefore, if biodegradable materials are placed in landfills, there may only be very slow biodegradation, or none at all. But if biodegradable plastics do break down in these oxygen-free landfills, they’ll emit methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Some landfills are now being designed to promote biodegradation by injecting water, oxygen, and microbes, but they are still in trial stages.
Compostable: industrial composting requires high temperatures, high humidity and oxygen. Like biodegradable materials, they can be made out of starch and other raw materials like cellulose and soy protein. Also like biodegradable materials, composting is not really possible in landfill.
Compostable plastic can be sent to industrial composting facilities, but these vary regionally the UK. Vegware is one company that has set up industrial composting plants, but they do not cover every region. They cover 38% of the UK as of May 2019, including the Highlands, Bristol, and Cambridge. However, they also only compost their own products, not any other brand’s compostable plastics.
Home composting: home composting tends to be done with food waste. Some countries have started testing compostable plastics in home composts. However, these too are still in trial stages, as home composts are not always able to reach the temperatures needed to biodegradable plastics. Furthermore, in urban areas such as London, having a home compost isn’t always practical.
There are some things that people are trying to do to make recycling less complicated. For example, students have assisted Marwell Zoo and created a prototype – an AI that can sort rubbish into the right recycling bins. It allows the user to hold up an item of rubbish to a scanner next to the recycling bin, and the AI can say which bin to put it in. This is incredibly useful, as if a piece of plastic is improperly recycled, it can contaminate all the other materials. However, this is only a prototype, and it isn’t clear if this AI programme will be used in any other areas of the UK.
Can compostable and biodegradable materials be recycled?
At the moment biodegradable and compostable plastics cannot be easily recycled. They must be separated from regular plastics and dealt with individually. If they are accidentally put into a normal plastic recycling stream, they can contaminate all the other materials, meaning that the whole batch cannot be recycled. This is because the biodegradable and compostable plastics would weaken the new product, especially as they tend to disintegrate when wet. Unfortunately because biodegradable and compostable plastics looks very similar to normal types of plastic, mix-ups can happen easily. It would take too much man-power for recycling plants to pick out individual plastic items.
According to The Sustainable Restaurant Association:
There is a lack of clarity concerning standards that define the biodegradability of biodegradable or compostable plastics in any environment. There is a particular lack of evidence on the behaviour of these materials in water, and there is a need to understand biodegradation at lower temperatures. Therefore, it is very difficult to accurately assess environmental impact of biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging.
It’s clear that a lot more research needs to be done concerning compostable and biodegradable plastics, particularly as they do not tend to break down completely in lower temperatures such as in the ocean, leading to a rise of microplastics that can seriously harm ocean environments.
Tips for getting started:
- Check your local council website for information about whether they recycle biodegradable or compostable materials
- Check labels on food packages
- Self-audit food and packaging with the Sustainable Restaurant Association
- Read over reporting guidelines from WRAP
- Ask questions of your waste contractor about how your recycling is processed
It’s clear that there’s a long way to go before recycling, particularly the recycling of biodegradable and compostable plastics, can really start to compete against reducing and reusing. So, while I’d always recommend recycling where possible, perhaps it is time to first take a hard look at what plastics you really need.