We live in the plastic age. The global production of plastic is now over 400 million tonnes every year. This is expected to double in the next 20 years and by 2050 it is forecast that there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. It is estimated that 79% of all plastic ever produced remains in the soil or marine environments as a legacy for the future.
In the UK retailers use approx. 1 million tonnes of plasticeach year to pack their groceries. Of this it is estimated that 9% will end in landfill, 22% will be incinerated (providing energy but also generating damaging emissions), 9% recycled and 60% exported (this includes what is exported to European incinerators to be burnt as refuse derived fuel).
Plastic waste is of increasing concern and there are many initiatives being introduced to encourage us to be more sustainable in managing our waste. These include the 4Rs, Remove, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. The Government has legislated to ban sale of certain plastic items such as straws, cotton buds and stirrers, and they plan a tax on plastic packaging that has less than 30% recycled material. Everyday there are articles in the media on how plastic waste might be controlled and managed in the future.
A single approach will not address this huge and extremely complex issue. Since the 1960s plastic has been a wonder material to help packaging perform in terms of protection, presentation and increasing shelf life / reducing food waste. Finding and introducing alternatives and/or changing customer behaviour in how they dispose of their packaging is not a quick or easy process. Furthermore, if you consider the issue on a global basis only 25% of the world has any structured waste management.
This is the view of a family-owned sausage producer in Devon. Westaway Sausages has won many awards including UK Packaging Innovation of the Year in 2020and their unique packs are the first certified compostable packs for meat products. Their packaging is functional –it looks good and keeps the product fresh. Yet leaves no legacy for the future. Westaways have reduced their use of plastic by 90% already and planning to reduce this further.
Charles Baughan Managing Director says. “We know that not all packaging ends up where it should, we want to change all our packaging materials to ensure that they leave no lasting impact.”
Westaways new sausage packs use a sustainably sourced card tray rather than plastic which is wrapped in a futuristic compostable polymer developed by German chemists. They are the first company in the UK to use this film, and the first in the world to use it for meat products.
Confusing terms such as bio-based, bio-degradable, eco-friendly, and sustainable are often used to describe and to categorise packaging into types and into different waste streams. These terms need explanation or evidence to support them.
A standard that is gaining international recognition is EN 13432. This certification defines the criteria that need to be met to declare that packaging can be composted. The criteria include:
• Disintegration – the method, the time taken and extent of disintegration.
• Biodegradability – a chemical measure of the actual metabolic, microbial conversion, under composting conditions into water, carbon dioxide and new cell biomass.
• Absence of any negative effect on the composting process.
• No adverse effect of the quality of compost produced.
Westaways chose EN 13432 to underpin their innovation. Furthermore, they wanted their packaging to meet this standard for both Home and Industrial composting.
Westaways needed proof that their packaging really did disintegrate completely leaving no residues other than valuable compost. There is a saying “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
Westaways needed to see what happened in practice in their own domestic scale compost heap.
The communities in Devon and Cornwall that are served by Westaways are largely rural and have a strong affiliation with gardening, agriculture, and the countryside. There is an understanding of the benefits of composting and of regenerative schemes. Composting is to an extent in their nature.
is an art and something that can give immense satisfaction. The secret of perfect compost is a combination of air and water, the correct materials and keeping the heat in. The correct materials are often termed as Green and Brown waste. Green waste includes grass clippings, vegetable, and fruit peelings, faded flowers and fleshy stems. Brown waste includes fallen leaves, dry stems, dry grass, and straw.
The card and polymer that Westaways use are ideal to use as the brown waste. The card rots quickly, and the ilm is broken down by the enzymes secreted by microbes in the compost.
In tests Westaways conducted in May 2020 the Westaway Sausages packaging completely disintegrated in under 60 days. The EN 13432 accreditation in place gave further assurance that there were no harmful residues or micro plastics. This packaging is now repurposed as valuable compost in their garden.
Charles explains “We have shown what a small company can do, we would challenge other manufacturers to develop similar initiatives. We intend to work with Plastic Free Communities and local recycling initiatives to share good practice and promote the use of composting.
We are keen to collaborate with our customers, our suppliers and even our competitors to share this innovation. We know that there is no single solution to the legacy of plastic waste, but we know the time to act is now.
We are seeking a bigger stage to scale up our project and create more awareness of what we have achieved, so our initiative becomes mainstream across the grocery sector in the UK.”