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Closing the loop on food packaging: Circular Business Economy

The rapidly growing takeaway food sector results in many single-use plastic containers being discarded every year. Recycling is generally impractical due to contamination caused by food residues, so takeaway packaging most often ends up in landfills. Reusable containers should be implemented wherever possible, but this is sometimes not practical, leaving a proportion that remains single use.

Overview

The challenge

The rapidly growing takeaway food sector results in many single-use plastic containers being discarded every year. Recycling is generally impractical due to contamination caused by food residues, so takeaway packaging most often ends up in landfills. Reusable containers should be implemented wherever possible, but this is sometimes not practical, leaving a proportion that remains single use.

The solution

Surveyed compostable foodservice packaging made from renewable plant-based materials offers a partial solution for the foodservice items that remain single-use.

What makes it circular? 

Simply substituting a compostable alternative is not circular on its own. By also providing a collection and composting service, Surveyed has created a circular system, ensuring that packaging and importantly, the food it contains does end up being composted thus contributing to the preservation of healthy soils.

What are the benefits? 

Surveyed has made its compost service available to more than 2000 postcodes across Australia and New Zealand. Since its launch, 200 companies have joined together, diverting 670 tonnes of compostable packaging and food scraps from landfills and creating 67,000 bags of nutrient-rich compost.

How our takeaway food habits degrade the environment

Takeaway food is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global food industry. This growth is inextricably linked with an increased demand for packaging, the majority of which is plastic and single-use, to satisfy an industry where convenience, hygiene, and food safety standards are paramount.

The packaging uses 26% of all plastics produced, and 90% of plastic packaging becomes ‘waste’ after only one use. Despite many decades of recycling, the collection rate for plastic packaging is about 14%, of which only 4% is recycled to new plastics, and a staggering 32% leaks out of the collection system and into the environment, visible on nearly every beach and body of water on the planet.

Public awareness of the environmental impact of plastics is at an all-time high and customers are driving demand for alternatives. Single-use plastic and non-recyclable packaging are being targeted globally by legislators. Through initiatives like the New Plastics Economy and its Global Commitment, governments, cities, and businesses are committed to eliminating problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through redesign, innovation, and new delivery models. Designing packaging solutions that meet the needs of the foodservice industry, help keep food out of landfills, and align with the principles of a circular economy is critical as we move towards a system where plastics never become waste.

While recycling is an important part of the solution, it is not always the best option and can be very expensive. Reuse models are a good alternative, but not always appropriate. In cases where single-use is needed, when recycling or reuse is not practical or economic, and there is the opportunity to divert food waste from landfills, compostable packaging can have a role to play.

Compostable packaging designed for a circular economy

As demand for packaging increases, the development of better options for plastic packaging, that are decoupled from the use of finite resources, becomes more important. Based on circular economy principles, these alternatives should be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by design and fit within a system that carries this out in practice and at scale.

Designed to be part of a circular economy, Surveyed compostable packaging is made from responsibly sourced materials, backed up by a collection service that ensures its products are composted in practice.

In Australia alone, the foodservice industry sends more than 250,000 tonnes of organic waste to landfills every year. Surveyed’s compostable foodservice packaging, and crucially, its after-use collection service guarantees the diversion of a proportion of these resources away from landfills.

The process starts with the responsible sourcing of materials and ends with the diversion of food and plastics from landfills. These materials are instead used to produce compost that can then be used to regenerate soil and grow new plants, at the same time reducing plastic pollution and cutting carbon emissions.

The study identify the most substantive solutions to global warming, categorized composting as one of the top 80 strategies for reducing GHGs. Their analysis found that nearly half of the solid waste produced globally is organic or biodegradable, but much of it ends up in landfills, decomposing to produce high global warming potential methane. While many landfills have some form of methane management, it is more effective to divert organic waste to composting facilities.

Closing the nutrient loop to enhance soil health

When it comes to food service packaging, contamination caused by food residue makes conventional recycling impractical. But for composting, food residues are actually an advantage. As a report has shown, food scraps are an exceptional source of nitrogen (N), a critically important macronutrient needed for healthy plant growth.

In the composting process, nitrogen-rich food residue assists biodegradation, balancing with other feedstocks that are richer in carbon (C), such as dry leaves, wood, and cardboard. The ideal C:N ratio is about 30:1, too much carbon and the decomposition slows down. Compostable packaging can facilitate the diversion of food waste, allowing beneficial nutrients to return and regenerate soils, rather than ending up in a landfill.

Solving the material challenge is just part of the solution

For packaging to be considered compostable, it must comply with relevant international standards and fit into a successful post-consumer collection, sorting, and composting system that is proven to work in practice and at scale. Organic waste collection services are still not universally offered, so to ensure its packaging is effectively composted, Surveyed established its own compost service. The composting service is designed to close the loop, with the ability to divert single-use food packaging away from landfills. The service collects compostable packaging, food scraps, and organic waste all in one organic waste bin — no separation required.

The road to even more circular

Surveyed believes that the use of compostable packaging can play a significant role in reducing the negative impact of single-use foodservice packaging.

The key challenge now lies in scaling up collection systems and organic recycling infrastructure worldwide. In areas where composting is not available, Surveyed is working on expanding options for organic recycling. This could include converting organic material into biochar, a benefit to soil structure as well as carbon sequestration, or utilizing the organic waste as a feedstock for worm and insect farming.

To further increase benefits, Surveyed could also explore different options for the growing or procurement of feedstock. For example, feedstock could be sourced from agricultural or industrial by-products; or grown in marginal areas helping restore degraded land; or cultivated using ‘regenerative practices’ which activate soil biology, enhance biodiversity, increase water storage, and sequester carbon.

All of the above measures would increase even further the circularity of Surveyed materials and systems, and at the same time make it easier for citizens to make choices that have a positive impact on the planet.

Business Circular Economy

Packaging that can’t be eliminated or reused must be collected, sorted, and recycled, or composted after use. But currently, the economics do not stack up: collection, sorting, and recycling, or processing packaging costs more than the revenues made from selling the recycled materials.

We need dedicated, ongoing, and sufficient funding to make the economics of recycling work.

Three Firm Commitments

  1. Ensure their entire organisation is aligned on, and their actions are in line with this statement.
  2. Be constructive in their engagement with governments and other stakeholders: advocating for the establishment of well-designed EPR policies and being supportive in working out how to implement and continuously improve EPR schemes in the local context.
  3. Engage with their peers and the relevant associations and collaborations we are part of to work towards aligning their positions and actions accordingly.

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