There is now broad consensus that we need to turn down the tap of plastic production, and that we can’t simply recycle our way out of the problem.
With a truckload of plastic detritus entering the ocean every minute, the impact of our addiction is becoming all too plain to see. The more pernicious ‘microplastics’, the toxins leaching into our food supply chains, are unseen and their resulting effects on humanity currently unknown.
But how can we ever replace plastic’s wondrous utility? What alternative is there that ever could be equally cheap, light and versatile? What packaging technology can protect, preserve and maintain product quality and shelf life as well as plastic?
Even with today’s lightning rate of innovation there seems to be no perfect replacement – but one of the most promising alternatives I’ve seen is known as ‘compostable packaging’.
Today there is a new wave of exciting, innovative start-up companies around the world who are producing fantastic quality, fully biodegradable packaging, made out of renewable biomaterials.
They’re made from organic matter rather than finite fossilised carbon – in our addiction to oil, we forget that our best resources are things like seaweed, trees and corn, which can be grown and re-grown ad infinitum.
These feedstocks could give a real boost to UK farmers, by utilising marginal agricultural land and providing a market for otherwise waste matter from crops.
And most importantly: these are materials that can fully biodegrade, rather than fragment into hundreds of thousands of micro particles that stay around for a millennium.
Through the composting process this packaging can be turned into nutrient-rich soil. Considering that the UK has a soil fertility crisis (an estimated 3 million tonnes of topsoil is lost annually) any circular model which treats waste as a resource should surely be heralded as an amazing opportunity.
So what’s the problem? Well – pretty much all compostable packaging is only properly composted if it is sent to an industrial composting facility. That only happens if people have food waste collections from their homes, to which compostable packaging can be added.
That’s why the Government should set up mandatory food waste collections for every household across every local authority in England. This would create the demand to make downstream investment in industrial composting a reality. And that in turn would make the possibility of a genuine replacement to plastic a reality.
At the same time, the packaging industry and retailers should adopt a common symbol that donates whether a piece of packaging should go into the plastic recycling bin, the landfill bin, or the composting food waste bin.
If central Government, local authorities, businesses and consumers all work together, solving the plastic waste crisis is well within our grasp.