Case For Support - Compostable plastics: unlocking existing barriers to systems change

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Mechanical Engineering

Abstract

In 2018 the UK Plastics Pact set a target to make all plastic packaging 100% recyclable, reusable, or compostable, and to eliminate all unnecessary single-use packaging by 2025. Including compostable plastics in the target was important for two reasons: firstly, there are some items such as food packaging, wipes, tea bags, coffee pods, sachets, that being highly food contaminated are not to suited to recycling or reuse; secondly, food waste is of major environmental importance and compostable liners play an important role in the route out of the home (government target of all UK households by 2023). \

But there is a fundamental problem. The compostables sector is the "wild west" of plastic packaging not just in the UK but also internationally. The materials are largely unregulated and the claims made of environmental credentials are often oversold to the public. Our citizen science research shows that 84% of UK households taking part reported that they are more likely to choose products that are marked as "biodegradable" or "compostable" but they are confused about how to dispose of them. Due to their popularity with the public and brands, the material is starting to displace recyclable plastics such as PET. Plastics Europe estimate the global market for biodegradable plastics is set to grow to 1.3 million tonnes in by 2023 but it could be much greater if compostable drinks bottle, crisp packets and chocolate wrappers start to be produced. The displacement of reusable or recycling products is not the only problem, contamination of other waste streams is another: compostable plastics are currently incompatible with most food waste processing systems. Thus it is it vital to design a workable and sustainable system for compostable tea bags, wipes, caddy liners, food contaminated to-go packaging, ect. The current problems are as follows:

1. Compostable plastics are currently unregulated; while there are certification standards that can be adopted voluntarily, these do not guarantee environmental protection.
2. There is no dedicated UK-wide collection and processing facilities for compostable plastics, without which their environmental impact is high.
3. There is currently no working technical solution to the automatic separation and sorting of compostable plastics, thus they are a growing contaminant in the plastics recycling and food waste collection systems.
4. There is widespread confusion about what they are and how to dispose of them especially in the case of home compostable plastics.
5. There is a growing risk that the confusion around compostable products (and a mistaken belief that they will biodegrade in any conditions) may lead to increased environmental pollution especially in the case of drinks bottles exported to other countries with no waste collection infrastructure.

We have co-created this research programme through a series of meetings with industry partners who have agreed to be part of the industry consortium Veolia, Paper Round, Deliveroo, Vegware, Nemi Teas, BBIA, REA, Xampla, Recycleye, Mamabamboo, Anerotech, Declan Mee Ltd and Closed Loop Partners. The agreed aim of this project is to unlock the barriers to a sustainable system for the use of compostable plastics in the UK and worldwide.

In this project we will synthesise the results from our environmental analysis of different compostable products with our work on labelling and automatic detection to consider how the disposal and industrial composting of these products could create a sustainable system. Specifically we will ask what UK waste processing system needs to be in place for such products to be sustainable, how such a system might operate, and how it could be economically viable. We place special emphasis on assessing the feasibility of using a UK food waste collection system as the means to harvest compostable plastics from domestic households.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Citation in House of Commons Plastic Waste briefing
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
URL https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-8515/CBP-8515.pdf
 
Description Citation in Public Health Wales Horizon Scanning report
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
URL https://phwwhocc.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/PHW-COVID19-IntHorizonScan_Report_13_6Aug2020.pdf
 
Description Consultation response: Defra Consistency in Household and Business Recycling in England
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
URL https://consult.defra.gov.uk/waste-and-recycling/consistency-in-household-and-business-recycling/
 
Description Consultation response: Defra Extended Producer Responsibility
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
URL https://consult.defra.gov.uk/extended-producer-responsibility/extended-producer-responsibility-for-p...
 
Description House of Commons EFRA committee on Plastic Waste
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
URL https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/52618ecf-3090-4ea2-9deb-4180d1c3442d
 
Description Inquiry response: House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry on plastic waste
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
URL https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/38880/html/
 
Description inquiry response: House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee inquiry on 'Mobilising action on climate change and environment: behaviour change'
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
URL https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/41689/html/
 
Title Big Compost Experiment 
Description Citizen Science Dataset 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Influence on Policy 
URL https://www.bigcompostexperiment.org.uk/
 
Title Website and online survey for the Big Compost Experiment 
Description The Big Compost Experiment is a nationwide research project about the role and effectiveness of compostable and biodegradable packaging. It is one of the research initiatives of UCL's Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, an 18-month interdisciplinary research project (funded by UKRI and EPSRC) aimed at developing new ways of designing out plastic waste. It comprises a short online survey of your opinions on compostable and biodegradable packaging, and how you process food waste. There is also an optional home composting experiment for those who wish to participate further. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact There is the opportunity to analyse the data collected on the UK's use and composting of biodegradable and compostable plastics, in order to make more informed recommendations for the use of biodegradable and compostable plastics as alternatives to single-use plastics, i.e. policy-making process and future strategies. This data will also help to build our Live Composting Map, a live map of home-composting activities across the UK. 
URL https://www.bigcompostexperiment.org.uk
 
Description Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), Coventry University 
Organisation Coventry University
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Jointly drafted NERC BBP research proposal with Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry (CAWR); internal submission
Collaborator Contribution Jointly drafted NERC BBP research proposal with Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry (CAWR); internal submission
Impact Applied for NERC grant, unsuccessful.
Start Year 2020
 
Description Closed Loop Partners 
Organisation Closed Loop Partners, LLC
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Signed MOU for an innovation and research partnership with Closed Loop Partners (11 October 2019).
Collaborator Contribution Launched Center for the Circular Economy, a collaboration center for public- and private-sector innovators to commercialise products, services, and technologies that are leading the transition to a circular economy. Manages a global innovation challenge, "The Next Gen Cup Consortium", and invites submission from UCL. Also invited UCL to become an innovation partner with our Center for the Circular Economy.
Impact N/A
Start Year 2019
 
Description Horniman Museum Compostable Plastic Lids collaboration 
Organisation Horniman Museum and Gardens
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Collaborative project to try and determine protocols for composting PLA coffee cup drinks lids at the museum.
Collaborator Contribution Personnel for meetings
Impact Multidisciplinary- currently ongoing.
Start Year 2021
 
Description Woodland Trust 
Organisation Woodland Trust
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We conducted a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to understand the environmental impact of using tree shelters; comparing the emissions when using different materials of tree shelters (PP and PLA), as well as without tree shelters as a whole.
Collaborator Contribution WT provided data to better help them understand the environmental impact of tree shelters.
Impact C. Chau, A. Paulillo, N. Lu, M. Miodownik, P. Lettieri (pending peer review) 'The Environmental Performance of Protecting Seedlings with Plastic Tree Shelters to Increase Woodland Cover in the UK.'
Start Year 2019
 
Description Cheltenham Science Festival Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Event called If I Do Just One Thing
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/science-/whats-on/2021/if-i-do-just-one-thing/ 
 
Description Compostable packaging in markets 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk in London Fields market with shoppers about compostable packaging
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Environmental Materials 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Sustainability talk ay St Pauls School
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description If I Do Just One Thing 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Cheltenham Science Festival Sustainability Event
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/science-/whats-on/2021/if-i-do-just-one-thing/
 
Description Inspiration Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Royal Institution Family talk, Zoe Laughlin, Ben Oldfrey, Mark Miodownik
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.rigb.org/whats-on/your-inspiration-making-material-difference
 
Description Interview for The Guardian 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Mark Miodownik interviewed for "'It comes from bacteria, and goes back to bacteria': the future of plastic alternatives"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/15/it-comes-from-bacteria-and-goes-back-to-bacteria...
 
Description Interview for The Guardian 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Mark Miodownik interviewed about nappies for "Reuse? Compost? Dump? Solving the eco-conundrum of nappies"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/20/disposable-nappies-plastic-waste-diapers
 
Description Interview for The Guardian 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Mark Miodownik interviewed about tree guard work
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/24/trees-should-be-planted-without-plastic-guards-s...
 
Description Interview for The Independant 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Charnett Chou interviewed about tree guard work
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/tree-planting-plastic-carbon-reforestation-b190781...
 
Description Interview for the Guardian 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Mark Miodownik interviewed for Article "Not cricket? Scientists suggest bamboo bats are a match for willow" comments on environmental sustainability.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/may/10/not-cricket-scientists-suggest-bamboo-bats-are-a-mat...
 
Description Lunchtime Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact UCL Lunchtime Lecture by Prof Paola Letteri and Charnett Chou 'Towards Net Zero: LCA Tools"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tHhomYR2dY
 
Description Materials for 21st Century 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Sustainability talk at Collyers School
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Are plastics really the enemy? How can we tackle this global issue? In the first series of our new podcast, 'Brought to you by chemistry', experts from around the world explore what we can do to create a more sustainable future.
Episode 6: Plastics and composting - can it work?
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.rsc.org/new-perspectives/brought-to-you-by-chemistry-podcast/
 
Description Woodland Trust article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Article called "What shall we do about tree shelters?" for WoodWise Magazine.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/