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Compostables - yay? or nay?

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Wednesday, 20 July 2022

It was great to have Plastic Free Hitchin at our event on Sunday 10th and we reinforced the anti-disposable message by asking people to bring their own cup (for which they received a 20p discount on drinks from Cafe2U) and a handful of people did remember to do this.

We provided three types of bin at the event - compostable, recycling and non-recycling (rubbish). The coffee cups from Cafe2U, the ice cream cups from Icebaby and the trays we served our scones on are all made from compostables (to avoid using plastic). These were collected and taken to MacDonalds who advertise that they will take them to industrial composting (they can’t be home composted).

However many ended up in our recycling bins and our rubbish bins. In the end we managed to take one small carrier bag sized bin of recycling to be recycled as the rest were too contaminated with food and nonrecyclables to be fit for recycling. The amount of rubbish we took away from the event was not bad - half a wheelie bin full of rubbish to landfill and half a wheelie bin full of compostables to MacDonalds - have yet to hear whether they accepted it or not as a lot of it had food waste on it and we’re not certain whether their offer only applies to compostable cups to extends to trays too.

I guess the question is - is plastic the culprit in all this - or is it our careless attitude to waste? Or is it the confusion generated by having no national policy on waste and packaging, but one that varies from county to county. Or is it our reluctance to wean ourselves off disposable containers and our forgetfulness when it comes to bringing our own cups. Or all three?

Also we see many cafes now moving from plastic cups/food trays to compostables to avoid plastic, without councils putting in place any facilities for their disposal, which at least they had in place for plastic. So now where should we throw away our compostable cups as we stroll through town? In the rubbish bins so they go to landfill and give off methane as they break down? In the recycling bins - no because they can’t be recycled and contaminate the waste stream? Or do we take them all to Nero or MacDonalds and hope they dispose of them?

And the next question is what’s the cradle to grave embedded energy of each product including its disposal? As card and paper take more energy to produce than plastic (and are required for much more important things than making containers for drinks on the go) it does make you wonder whether we should just get rid of all disposable containers and stop thinking that plastic is the culprit. It’s so easy to imagine that getting rid of plastic will solve everything but as the above shows, it’s just not that simple.

And finally it’s worth mentioning that packaging accounts for about 2% of the carbon footprint of our shopping habits - so perhaps we should be focusing more of our energies on the big things - like avoiding flying, reducing car journeys and ensuring our homes are adequately insulated - useful in a heatwave too!