Waste recovery is one of the largest challenges we have to face on our path towards a more circular economy, and packaging is the largest challenge facing waste recovery. Recovery is a challenge for all packaging materials – whether they’re fossil-based, bio-based, recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable. Recovery includes recycling, composting, and other waste management strategies.
9% of plastic has been recycled while 79% has ended up in our landfills and natural environment.
Challenges with recycling include consumer engagement, access, sorting, processing, and end markets.
Access to recycling varies state-by-state, county-by-county, and city-by-city. Regarding sorting, recycling facilities first separate 2D packaging from 3D packaging. Then, they separate the packaging by material type. The largest issue with sorting is contamination.
Even if materials are successfully sorted and processed, we have to ensure there is an end market for the recycled materials.
51% of municipal solid waste is compostable but only 5% is actually composted. Most composting facilities don't accept event the most basic compostable packaging materials.
Challenges with composting include consumer engagement, access, infrastructure, and processing.
There are three general types of composting: home composting, community composting, and commercial composting. Furthermore, not all composting facilities are created equal and the variance in access and processing capabilities varies even more than with recycling.
EPA, Advancing Sustainable Materials Management Report, 2016
There is public confusion surrounding the terms “biodegradable” and “compostable.”
Biodegradable refers to a material’s ability to “break down, safely and relatively quickly, by biological means, into the raw materials of nature.”
Compostable refers to a material’s ability to biodegrade “in a composting environment in a relatively short time, capable of producing usable compost.”
Bio-based refers to a material that is is "wholly or partially derived from biomass." Bio-based materials are not necessarily biodegradable. For instance, traditional non-biodegradable plastics like PET, PP, and PE can be derived from biomass.
Ulf Bruder, User's Guide to Plastics, 2015
Also, beware of petroleum-based plastics marketed as "oxo-degradable" or "biodegradable in landfills." These are traditional plastics treated with "biodegradability" additives. These additives break traditional plastics down into microplastics, which are more likely to be consumed by wildlife and harder to remove from our natural environment.
Within 180 days: 90% of carbon is converted to CO2.
(90 days for most windrow composters)
Within 84 days: 90% of material passes through a 2 millimeter sieve.
(30-60 days for most aerated static pile composters)
Sustainable Packaging Coalition, Essentials of Sustainable Packaging, 2018