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Compostable bags have nearly TWICE the global warming impact of traditional plastic, report claims

They’re often touted as ‘eco-friendly’, but a new study may have you second guessing buying compostable bags.  

Sourceful, a Manchester-based supply chain transparency startup, analysed more than 20 materials, including compostable plastic and normal garbage bags. 

It found compostable bags have nearly twice the global warming impact of traditional plastic, and four times that of paper. 

While compostable bags can only properly degrade under high temperatures in special processing plants, they’re mostly discarded in general waste before being sent to landfill where they release methane, Sourceful warns.

Most compostable bags labelled as eco-friendly have close to double the global warming impact of traditional plastic, the new research found. The main applications of compostable plastics include food packaging, bags, cups, plates, cutlery and bio-waste bags (pictured)

What is compostable plastic?

‘Compostable plastic’ describes a material that can undergo biological degradation in a compost site at a rate consistent with other known compostable materials, leaving no visible (toxic) residues. 

The term ‘compostable’ is often used interchangeably with ‘biodegradable’, even though biodegradable materials are designed to break down in landfills and compostable materials need special conditions for them to break down. 

The main applications of compostable plastics include food packaging, bags, cups, plates, cutlery and bio-waste bags. 

However, compostable plastics are currently incompatible with most waste management systems, say researchers at University College London. 

What’s more, there is no ‘harmonized international standard’ for home compostable plastics, they add. 

Plastic bags, on the other hand, emit very little greenhouse gases in landfill because they are relatively ‘inert’, meaning they’re harder to break down.  

According to Sourceful, marketing compostable plastics as good for the planet is a form of ‘greenwashing’ – making things appear more eco-friendly than they are. 

‘Compostable bags and films have been marketed as a green replacement to fossil-fuel plastic by virtue of being able to compost harm-free,’ said Sourceful CEO Wing Chan. 

‘Research is showing that the conditions for this composting don’t exist in practical terms, and the carbon footprint of compostable bags is significantly worse than plastic, recycled plastic or paper options as a result.’

For the study, Sourceful researchers analysed 21 materials representing three-quarters of the global bioplastics market.

They all fell under five categories – compostable plastic, virgin fossil (traditional plastic), recycled plastic, paper and bio-based non-compostable packaging. 

Using the European Commission’s Environmental Footprint 3.0 datasets, they examined greenhouse gas emissions of each product’s lifecycle – raw material extraction, film production and end-of-life stages including disposal.

They found compostable packaging generated 227 grams of CO2 equivalent per bag on average, compared with 118 grams on average for virgin plastics – almost double. 

CO2 equivalent (CO2e) is the number of metric tons of CO2 emissions with the same global warming potential as one metric ton of another greenhouse gas. 

When expanded to other impact categories such as water use and land use, the gap widened to approximately 2.5 times worse than traditional virgin plastic, Sourceful found.  

For the study, Sourceful researchers analysed 21 materials representing three-quarters of the global bioplastics market. They all came under five types: compostable plastic, virgin fossil (traditional plastic), recycled plastic, paper and bio-based non-compostable packaging

For the study, Sourceful researchers analysed 21 materials representing three-quarters of the global bioplastics market. They all came under five types: compostable plastic, virgin fossil (traditional plastic), recycled plastic, paper and bio-based non-compostable packaging

The study showed compostable packaging generated 227 grams of CO2 equivalent per bag on average, compared with 118 grams on average for virgin plastics – almost double

The study showed compostable packaging generated 227 grams of CO2 equivalent per bag on average, compared with 118 grams on average for virgin plastics – almost double

ONLY 9 PER CENT OF PLASTIC RECYCLED WORLDWIDE: OECD 

Just 9 per cent of plastic used across the world is recycled, the OECD said in February.

Its report found that 460 million tonnes of plastics were used in 2019, the number nearly doubling since 2000.

The amount of plastic waste had more than doubled during that time to 353 million tonnes, the Paris-based OECD said.  

‘After taking into account losses during recycling, only nine percent of plastic waste was ultimately recycled, while 19 percent was incinerated and almost 50 percent went to sanitary landfills,’ it said in its Global Plastics Outlook.

‘The remaining 22 percent was disposed of in uncontrolled dumpsites, burned in open pits or leaked into the environment.’ 

OECD called for ‘coordinated and global solutions’ ahead of expected talks on an international plastics treaty.

In theory, bags labelled as ‘compostable’ are made from vegetable matter like potato or corn starch, but they need specific conditions for them to break down.

In industrial composting facilities, such as in-vessel composting (IVC), compost is guaranteed to reach high temperatures. 

Unfortunately, there’s is a lack of composting infrastructure in the UK today, Sourceful says, meaning only three per cent of compostable packaging ends up in such a facility. 

Of the remainder, 54 per cent is landfilled and 43 per cent is incinerated, the firm claims, citing UK government stats.  

If compostable plastic ends up in landfill, it’s harmful for the environment because as it breaks down it emits methane, a harmful greenhouse gas that is up to 34 times more potent than CO2. 

Compostable packaging that doesn’t end up in a controlled compost facility releases around 90 grams of greenhouse gas per bag, Sourceful researchers say. 

According to market research, the global compostables market is set to triple between 2021 and 2026, from $7.7 billion (£6.3 billion) to $23.3 billion (£19.2 billion). 

But currently in the  UK there’s a lack of composting infrastructure, with no public collection schemes for compostable packaging and few industrial composting facilities, meaning compostables are placed in general waste.

Overall, whether intentional or unintentional, Sourceful found that greenwashing is ‘rife in the market’, likely because products that are marketed as sustainable sell faster, Harvard research has shown. 

Compostable bags tend to be advertised as 'eco-friendly' with slogans like 'save the planet' - but their green credentials may be overstated

Compostable bags tend to be advertised as ‘eco-friendly’ with slogans like ‘save the planet’ – but their green credentials may be overstated 

In theory, bags labelled as 'compostable' are made from vegetable matter like potato or corn starch which fully break down

In theory, bags labelled as ‘compostable’ are made from vegetable matter like potato or corn starch which fully break down

‘The increased carbon footprint of compostable bags and films contributes to global warming rather than slowing it,’ Chan said. 

‘The practical reality of compostables does not reflect the narrative used to market them. 

‘We recommend avoiding and looking to switch out where possible in your supply chain.’ 

The research follows a study led by University College London (UCL) that found only 40 per cent of plastic billed as ‘compostable’ actually fully bio-degrades into natural substances.

The remaining 60 per cent of home-compostable plastics do not fully disintegrate in home compost bins, and therefore can end up in soils, UCL scientists found. 

One of the offending pieces of ‘compostable’ packaging that did not fully disintegrate was used by the Guardian to package their newspapers. 

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Experts find roast dinner can contain up to 230,000 particles 

Nearly a fifth of recyclable items end up in the wrong bin

‘Seabins’ trap one marine organism for every 3.6 items of litter 

Eight million tonnes of plastics find their way into the ocean every year

Of 30 billion plastic bottles used by UK households each year, only 57 per cent are currently recycled.

With half of these going to landfill, half of all plastic bottles that are recycled go to waste.

Around 700,000 plastic bottles a day end up as litter.

This is largely due to plastic wrapping around bottles that are non-recyclable.

Bottles are a major contributor to the increasing amount of plastic waste in the world’s oceans. 

Researchers warned eight million tonnes of plastics currently find their way into the ocean every year – the equivalent of one truckload every minute. 

The amount of plastic rubbish in the world’s oceans will outweigh fish by 2050 unless the world takes drastic action to further recycle, a report released in 2016 revealed. 

At current rates, this will worsen to four truckloads per minute in 2050 and outstrip native life to become the largest mass inhabiting the oceans.

An overwhelming 95 per cent of plastic packaging – worth £65 – £92billion – is lost to the economy after a single use, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report stated.

And available research estimates that there are more than 150 million tonnes of plastics in the ocean today.

It is estimated that about eight million metric tons of plastic find their way into the world's oceans every year

Plastic pollution is ruining the ecosystems of the world, both marine and terrestrial. It litters shorelines, snags animals and suffocates entire populations of animals  

So much plastic is dumped into the sea each year that it would fill five carrier bags for every foot of coastline on the planet, scientists have warned. 

More than half of the plastic waste that flows into the oceans comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. 

The only industrialized western country on the list of top 20 plastic polluters is the United States at No. 20. 

The US and Europe are not mismanaging their collected waste, so the plastic trash coming from those countries is due to litter, researchers said.

While China is responsible for 2.4 million tons of plastic that makes its way into the ocean, nearly 28 percent of the world total, the United States contributes just 77,000 tons, which is less than one percent, according to the study published in the journal Science.

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Read more at DailyMail.co.uk



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