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Compostable Bioplastics In The Real World

Posted on April 4th, 2017 by in New Materials & Applications

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In a few recent posts, we’ve been looking at the environmental impact of plastics. Last time we focused on technologies using alternative feedstocks for plastic manufacture, which we’re going to dive deeper into today, by looking at fully compostable bioplastics.

Bioplastics are made wholly or partly from organic feedstocks, such as plant matter (starch, hemp, farm waste). They’re usually low-carbon, low-emissions, and cut down on the use of non-renewable fossil fuels as raw material. While not all bioplastics are biodegradable, those that are also reduce the volume of waste being sent to landfill.

Compostable bioplastics typically completely break down into “humus” (not the kind you might eat, but the kind of topsoil that provides nutrients to plants) in a relatively short time, which means they can be effectively recycled.

Enter Vegware

Vegware are an Edinburgh-based company founded in 2006 with the aim of making compostable, low-carbon food-service items.

The food service industry often presents unique challenges from a recycling perspective. Leftover food and its packaging need to be separated cleanly and completely in order to compost the food, and recycle the packaging. Clearly, this is difficult to do at scale, especially in fast food environments with a quick turnover of customers.

Vegware have addressed the problem by developing fully compostable packaging materials. Both leftover food, and its packaging, can go into the same organic waste bin and processed together. Both can be composted into nutrients to aid with further plant growth, as a part of a circular and sustainable process. It usually takes around 180 days for the packing to go from being thrown away by a customer to being shipped out of a composting centre as nutrient-rich compost.

Vegware have developed a range of bioplastic packaging including cups, sandwich wedges, bags, takeaway boxes, and natural starch cutlery. Their line even includes soup and coffee cups that can withstand high temperatures, which is a relatively recent achievement for bioplastic products.

The Cambridge Connection

While Vegware packaging has been adopted by UK government offices, NHS and healthcare units and independent artisan delis and cafes, I’m particularly interested in their recent collaboration with Cambridge University.

Cambridge University has set itself the ambitious goal of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill by 2020. One step they’ve taken towards that target is to collaborate with Vegware. All cafes run by the University have switched to Vegware’s compostable packaging.

All food and packaging is sent to a nearby composting center and converted into biogas and topsoil. In 2016, the Vegware-Cambridge collaboration was nominated for a Green Gown Award for this zero-waste catering initiative.

Have you come across Vegware, or a different compostable food packaging material, at cafes or canteens near you?


 

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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