New guidance to address confusion over compostable plastic packaging

6 February 2020

  • Compostable plastics could be particularly useful for flexible packaging which contains food residue
  • Rigid compostable plastic packaging, e.g. cups, generally only beneficial in a ‘closed’ system like an event
  • Compostable plastics should be avoided where there is potential for them to contaminate conventional plastics recycling
  • Clear labelling for citizens on their disposal is crucial

WRAP, which leads The UK Plastics Pact, has today published new guidance to help businesses make informed choices when considering the use of compostable packaging.

Based on the products and infrastructure that are available to packaging designers and specifiers today, the guidance identifies key applications and opportunities for compostable plastic packaging. These are often items which are likely to have food residue on them and could potentially facilitate the recycling of food waste. The key potential uses are:

  • Food caddy liners (and other bags such as carrier bags or fruit and vegetable bags that could be used as food caddy liners)
  • Fruit and vegetable stickers
  • Tea bags
  • Coffee pods
  • Ready meal trays
  • ‘Closed loop’ situations e.g. festivals

Recommendations about how to communicate with citizens about appropriate disposal of compostable plastic packaging are also provided – for example, explaining whether the item can be composted at home or not, and highlighting the importance of not putting them in the recycling bin with conventional plastics.

Helen Bird, Strategic Engagement Manager at WRAP, said: “We know from research that 77% of citizens believe that compostable plastic is better for the environment than other types of packaging. However, compostable plastic is still plastic, and it is no silver bullet for solving plastic pollution.

“Businesses need to be clear on when it is viable, given the complexities surrounding current treatment infrastructure. When it comes to recyclability, WRAP is clear that a claim of ‘recyclable’ should only be made if it can be recycled in practice. The same should be applied to compostable plastics. And it is critical that end markets for recycled plastics are not compromised; people need clear instruction not to place compostable plastics in the recycling bin.

“But there are certain applications where it can be a helpful alternative to conventional plastics; absolute no-brainers include fruit stickers and tea bags. This new guidance will help steer decision-making on this complex and high-profile topic.”  

The guidance highlights the importance of communicating with citizens to ensure they end up in the correct bin, but the challenges in doing so owing to the current infrastructure. Some instructional phases are suggested such as “place in your food or garden waste bin if your local council accepts it”, while also recommending statements to counter the risk that some people may see compostable plastics as a license to litter.

In March, WRAP is launching a campaign aimed at citizens which will provide factual and balanced information about plastics, including compostable plastics.

Notes to Editor

  • The guidance is available at: Compostable plastic packaging
  • Find out more about The UK Plastics Pact here
  • WRAP is a not for profit organisation founded in 2000 which works with governments, businesses and citizens to create a world in which we source and use resources sustainably. Our impact spans the entire lifecycle of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the products we buy, from production to consumption and beyond.