(This article was originally published by Dead Weight Loss on 15th January, 2013 here.)
The first time I heard about compostable potato plates around ten years ago, I went to some effort to source them for family functions, enduring much greenie-baiting, yet feeling smug when (conveniently) handing the bag to my brother-in-law for his compost. At the time, I truly believed that bio ware was the solution to non-sustainable packaging.
Upon becoming a recycling educator in 2010 however, I discovered that, for waste companies dealing with public waste collections, the plates, cups, bottles, cutlery and bags that make up the ever-growing range of these ‘biodegradable’ products are in fact one of the biggest blocks towards getting clean comingled recycling, for the following reasons:
- bio ware items look similar to plastic or cardboard counterparts and if sent to comingled recycling confuse both the machines and humans tasked with sorting
- if put in with legitimate recyclable product they can render whole batches useless
- if found in large quantities amongst recycling (such as at an event) the entire bin or skip risks being sent to landfill
In addition, there is little financial incentive for waste companies to sort the bio ware from the recycling because as Sandy Beath-Croft, Environmental Sustainability Advisor at Hutt City Council notes: “An extra person would be required to pull them off the sort line, and if the end product has no market, it doesn’t get done.”
With our small population making investment in recycling plants risky, our recycling mostly gets sent offshore, and New Zealand waste companies are under pressure from Chinese buyers to provide uncontaminated product. Because there is a lack of policy and education as to what stream bio ware should go in, the increase in the use of these products threatens to reduce the market for our legitimate recycling.
Yet these ‘compostable’ items make big claims: they are “eco friendly” (Bio Supplies) “environmentally friendly” (Paklink), or “future friendly packaging” (Ecoware, BioWare), and there are many scientific articles written on the low carbon footprint and environmental benefits of using plant-based materials rather than petrochemicals for packaging.
What the majority of bio ware distributors failed to do on entering the New Zealand market however, was ensure that the waste industry had the infrastructure to process them. With the result that for most municipal waste collections – home, work, events, etc. – these items should actually be sent to landfill, which, according to bioplastics manufacturer Biome, is precisely where they should not go: “the conditions in well maintained landfill sites are too dry for degradable plastics to actually rot. [. . .] More work needs to be done [. . .] but in the intervening time the precautionary approach is to try to ensure that all biodegradable bioplastics are kept out of landfill because they permanently sequester carbon.” 
The obvious solution would be to put them in organics/compost collections to be sent to commercial composters, and some composters can take them, one of which is Wellington’s Kai to Compost, which can take most items (as long as they are Certified compostable) including PLA and timber, potato or corn starch products. Their reference guide warns customers to “watch out for greenwash as not all products that say they are compostable, biodegradable or bio based, can be composted.” It also notes that the Waste Minimisation Organics sector group are developing a standardised verification logo for compostable food packaging but that this is still at least 12 months away.
Yet, the bigger problem is that most commercial composters operate high rotate systems that process food and garden waste very quickly. All of these items require longer processing times, and may take several passes through the system before they break down fully. The risk is that the chunks left in the compost can jam up farmers’ machinery, and if left on a paddock, potentially cause livestock to choke. In addition, each item would have to be removed and checked at each pass to ensure it was a biodegradable product, prohibiting affordability.
Hence, unless the distributor, vendor or end use consumer takes responsibility for composting these items, in most areas in New Zealand bio ware will not be composted commercially, and recycling educators (who would otherwise embrace compostable packaging) struggle to educate against their use, when most people want to believe that they are doing the right thing.
One waste education team that has gone public with the false claims of Charlie’s Eco Water Bottles is Wanaka Wastebusters, who challenged the claims about the bioplastic bottles on Campbell Live. Media spokesperson, Gina Dempster recommends that if you wish to use any bio ware item, you should check first whether the local composting facility can take them. She explains that bioplastics work best “in a situation where there is an easy collection method. They don’t work so well when they’re just sent into people’s homes”. She too warns against sending them to Landfill.
A matter of scale
Yet, as Amanda Martin from Christchurch business Eco Express notes, bio ware currently only makes up a small percentage of the total waste in New Zealand. She believes that the future advantages far outweigh the current issues, provided that the items are Certified compostable.
Martin primarily supplies the commercial sector (in particular, supplying bin liners for food waste collection), and takes product stewardship seriously: “We work with individual clients to identify the most suitable waste outcomes for our products. The outcomes will vary between regions depending on the availability of commercial composting facilities and home composting, but in our experience, the outcomes are mainly very positive.”
She understands the frustration felt by the waste industry with regards to those companies who do not commit to ensuring that their products will be composted, but believes that this is still no reason to “let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. She notes that “as Certified compostable packaging is produced from annually-renewable, plant based materials, there is an opportunity to reduce our petroleum dependence, utilize plant by-products or crops not suitable for human consumption, and plant-fibre previously wasted or burnt.” 
Plant waste to packaging to compost
The use of waste products to create bio ware came up recently as part of a discussion on waste I took part in at the Temporary Economic Zone Aotearoa (TEZA). Held at the New Brighton Creative Quarter in Christchurch, TEZA combined art, performance and workshops, and one of the installations was Te Ao Marama (Te Urutahi Waikerepuru and Tim Barlow), made using sheets of bioplastic and harakeke fibre skin. During the discussion, Barlow noted how the material was a superior product to work with, and that New Zealand Crown Research Institute for forestry, Scion had begun making products combining kiwi fruit waste with PLA bioplastic, a development that addresses one of the common criticisms of both bio ware and biofuels: “that plant-based fuels and plastics use arable land that could be feeding the hungry of the world.”
The use of kiwifruit pulp came about when Scion were asked by kiwifruit company Zespri to design a ‘biospife’, a spoon/knife eating utensil that can be composted along with the hollowed out skin. Polymer Scientist Martin Markotsis explains that the idea came up to use some of the waste product from juicing, but at this stage there is still more PLA bioplastic used than pulp.
Scion tested the biospife, as they do all their bio products, in their purpose built composting unit in Rotorua, where similar products can also be sent to be tested (for a fee). Markotsis observes that the unit is capable of testing to the European standards.”
Markotsis notes that even when PLA products are compostable, there still needs to be a new stream created because PLA is currently classed as a 7, which is used to categorise all ‘other’ plastics and includes biodegradable, photo-sensitive, and plant-based plastics.
How could bio ware be accommodated fully into our waste streams?
I believe that full accommodation could be achieved, but it would require legislation to have all possible plastic products replaced with their compostable alternatives, making collection of bio ware easier, and ensuring a viable on-shore market for both the production of the items and the cost of processing them into compost.
Without central government intervention however, any wholesale adoption would require the packaging, waste, and composting industries to voluntarily work together alongside local councils. Products would have to be Certified and labelled, and either be accommodated into existing organics/compost waste streams, or have a new waste stream invented. Any schemes would also need to be supported by a comprehensive and widespread education campaign.
Overall, the best way to ensure any system would work would be to aim for national cohesion, something that it is worth noting, has yet to be achieved with regards to recycling.
Future friendly disposal?
There is a glimmer of hope in the news that Blended Fuel Solutions New Zealand Limited is currently awaiting consent for a pilot plant that can turn any type of waste into fuel, using pyrolysis, an old technology that director Leigh Ramsey explains involves the “thermal degradation of matter in the absence of oxygen.” He notes that waste to energy is becoming popular internationally, but because of New Zealand’s “sparse population and geographical nature” it is difficult to achieve here. His solution is to manufacture smaller decentralised plants that can create fuel for local markets.
The use of such technology would transform the waste industry; the difficulties of streaming and sorting could be bypassed with the return to a one or two-bin system (preferably with organic waste separated for composting).
Until a solution is found however, unless you are prepared to compost bio ware products at home or can be sure that they are going to an approved commercial composter, current best practice is to send these items to landfill, making their eco credentials a sham. Better, replace them with their recyclable counterparts.
Of course there is an alternative that is truly eco: to encourage businesses and consumers to revert to reusable products such as glass bottles and items sold in bulk. Because, in the decade since I first heard about potato plates, I’ve learned that disposable is never sustainable – no matter what it is made of. And if we are going to go to that much trouble to accommodate bio ware, why not return to a system that values reusable items such as those we used before we had a choice? That would be truly future friendly.
 In 2013 bioware is a collective term used to describe any ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ single use item including: potato starch, corn starch, timber products, bamboo, bioplastics and PLA (polylactic acid). However, to avoid confusion with the company trading as BioWare, I have elected to refer to these items as bio ware.
 Sandy Beath-Croft. Phone call to author. 9 December 2013.
 A number of papers have been written about the environmental advantages of these products, and the main article used here is a White Paper written by Chris Goodall for UK bioplastics company Biome (see below). Elizabeth Royte (author of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash) has also written a balanced article here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/plastic.html?c=y&page=1
 Goodall, Chris. “Bioplastics: an important component of global sustainability.” Biome Bioplastics (Sept. 2011). Pg. 10.
 A recent example is the $60 000 NZD fine imposed on Eco Pal for making false environmental claims about their ‘100% Degradable’ courier bags. http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/BU1311/S00649/rubbish-bag-company-fined-heavily-over-environment-claims.htm
 Kai to Compost. “What packaging can we put in our compost?: A reference guide for Kai to Compost and Capital Compost service users at the Southern Landfill.” November 2013. Pg. 1.
 In Christchurch, where my company Our Daily Waste provides recycling services at events, there is currently no composting options for large quantities, so vendors are asked to replace them with recyclable packaging to reduce the weight and cost of landfill disposal, along with the environmental cost. Some vendors continue to use these items however, convinced that they are still the best option, yet not wishing to take responsibility for disposal themselves.
 Gina Dempster. Email to author. 10 December 2013.
 These items are not differentiated in the most recent Ministry for the Environment waste statistics (2009) so are presumably included either in the Organics (28%), Plastics (8%) or Paper (7%) categories. http://www.mfe.govt.nz/environmental-reporting/waste/waste-composition-2009/index.html
 Tim Barlow. Email to author. 7 December 2013
 Martin Markotsis. Phone call to author. 7 January 2014
 Leigh Ramsey. Phone call to author. 24 December 2013