Recyclable, biodegradable, compostable – what is the difference and how does it work? We chatted with Vegware Hong Kong to understand more.
Late for work, home delivery or forgot your reusables? Most of us are guilty of convenience over sustainability. With landfills filling up around the world with the increasing amount of waste produced, we need to start thinking about circular solutions and fast. Disposables from restaurants, catering and our home deliveries typically ends up in the landfill, as contamination prevents it from being recycable. But there are soltions available that allow that waste to be composted into feed for our future crops.
By getting companies to switch from plastic to plants, Vegware Hong Kong was able to save over 48,000kgs of carbon, 17,600kgs of virgin materials, and 34,000kgs of finite materials in 2017. How? Well for a start producing oil-based plastic is much more carbon-intensive versus plant-based alternatives. We wanted to find out more so chatted to Vegware, a plant-based catering disposable brand.
But before we dive into our interview let’s understand what the different terminologies mean, particularly in a food services context.
> Recyclable – dry card and paper, plastic water bottles and metal drink cans can be recycled. But more often than not, used catering disposables are a mix of card, plastic, and food, and when thrown into the recycling bin, food contamination is inevitable. This creates big recycling challenges, with the items normally ending up in incineration or landfill. But with packaging that is compostable, food doesn’t cause contamination and both can be composted together.
> Biodegradable – means that something breaks down naturally, but it can take years. For example wood is biodegradable, but if you’ve ever seen a wooden cabin or house – they last for decades. With biodegradable packaging, there is no guarantee it will break down in commercial composting.
> Compostable – means that something is biodegradable or can break down in less than 12 weeks. Which makes it suitable for commercial composting together with food waste. This creates a great balance of microbes, moisture, and warmth, where waste gets transformed into nutrient-rich compost that will in turn help plants thrive.
Ceciy, tell us more about how Vegware is more sustainable for the planet, compared to regular packaging.
You can’t recycle food with plastic in it, and you can’t recycle plastic with food on it. As a result, almost all food packaging ends up in landfill or incineration. Vegware is made from plants, not plastic. It’s commercially compostable and designed to be recycled with food waste, so there’s no need to clean, sort or separate any of it. All our packaging is made out of recyclable or renewable material. We also generate less carbon during production thus, since all our packaging is plastic-free, we do not use finite material, petroleum which cause climate change once dispose of in the landfill.
What is compostable packaging?
Compostable packaging refers to packaging that is made of plant-based material and complete plastic-free. Benefits of compostable packaging include:
1) It can decompose along with food waste and turn into compost in a composting machine. Versus conventional packaging, e.g. polystyrene or plastic bags, which cannot be recycled if contaminated with food.
2) They do not release toxic gas, e.g. methane when discarded in the landfill. As we know methane is a key factor in accelerated climate change.
3) Compostable packaging has no plastic in it, therefore, it does not require petroleum during production, which is a finite material on earth.
How does Vegware convince companies to go more sustainable and use your packaging instead of plastic packaging, given that the latter is often cheaper and more convenient?
We are grateful there are many companies are happy to switch to compostable packaging as they realise the negative impact of plastic disposables. It truly helps and also motivates us to promote plant-based disposables to companies having the subconscious mind to use green alternatives. Though they are more expensive than plastics for now, we are certain that an increased demand of plant-based disposables will help lower the retail cost and therefore become more price competitive.
Co-mingling and contamination when it comes to recycling can be a big issue. How do you engage and educate your consumers on proper disposal of Vegware packaging?
In general smart product labeling and well thought out bin signage can really prevent contamination when recycling. Plant-based packaging does not require separation from the food waste, therefore, we encourage restaurants and food outlets to use plant-based packaging so that food scraps and containers are picked up at the same time to be composted.
How do you think we got to this point – of unsustainable, disposable packaging everywhere? What went wrong?
We do not think plastic was fault invention. It was, indeed, an ideal product at the time though along with time and as part of human evolution, we need new products, new technology to solve the excessive waste issue, especially in the food sector. The intention and creation of plastic has its benefits, as it is material that can be molded for many usages; under the heat, easy to reshape, also air and water resistance. Though in the food sector, since plastic cannot be recycled once contaminate with food, and that coupled with the release of toxic gas and carbon dioxide, it became an unsexy product with its exponential growth over the years.
Since the majority of the world now still operates on unsustainable packaging, how do you think Vegware can inspire cultural and attitude shift?
It’s inevitable to use plastic but we have great green alternative which is compostable to help solve part of the tremendous food waste and packaging problems. This is our vision and we believe is the ultimate solution to zero waste in the food sector. We are optimistic of the shifts towards green products and lifestyle. Very often, behaviour change or attitude shift comes from the government, policy and what’s available in the market. Vegware has been active in sharing its products and idea on compostable products to solve waste problem. We trust people would support this change and idea.
What are some #LittleGreenSteps companies or consumers can take when it comes to reducing your ecological footprint in packaging?
Our eco-audit on carbon foot-print saved via using Vegware packaging is very useful to help companies and consumers get the idea on how much carbon footprint saved via using Vegware containers. The intensive study and research comparing plant-based packaging vs plastic and its carbon saved is valuable to companies with their sustainable reports.
The 5 steps to zero waste factsheet is also great guideline to indicate best way implementing those steps. They can be used in schools, any public events, activities and even knowledge sharing. Here is a summary and you can get more details with the factsheet:
1. Switch all disposables to compostable alternatives
2. Find the best recycling solution and label your bins
3. Communicate the system
4. Training and engagement
5. Measure and communicate