As reported by the Australian Broadcasting Company, Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, will ban businesses from using single-use, petroleum-based plastic food containers and utensils within the city council limits. Plastic food containers and utensils used by takeaway stores are set to be phased out by the Hobart City Council in what it is called a nation-leading move. The council voted 10-1 to amend draft environmental health bylaws, banning single use, petroleum-based plastic containers and utensils by 2020.

In announcing its plastics ban, Hobart Council said the decision was made to reflect the changing demands of consumers, which have come as a result of better education about the impact of plastics and other non-biodegradable products. Indeed, Mintel research found that 54% of urban Australians say they are willing to pay a 10% premium for environmentally friendly products, while a quarter report they are willing to pay up to 20% more. That said, historically the gap between intention and action is wide. According to Dan Matsch, compost manager for recycling and zero-waste organization Eco-Cycle, while the term “compostable” tends to garner the most credibility (among general eco-based terms), it is often more a greenwashing tactic than anything else.

As well as this, consumers typically don’t realize there are very different conditions for home and industrial composting. When the time comes to pay the piper for more environmentally responsible packaging, consumers today believe brands and retailers should be doing more to protect and preserve the environment than they can do as individuals. Part and parcel of that expectation is eco-responsible packaging for which they should not be paying more.
In a report by ABC, Hobart Greens Alderman, Bill Harvey, said Australians are becoming more aware of their understanding of “plastic pollution”, in part due to the recent ABC documentary “War on Waste” which explored the toll plastics and other “rubbish” have on the environment. The fact that plastic packaging and rubbish are considered as one in the same speaks volumes about the overall lack of understanding of the positive role packaging—including many forms of plastics—play in preserving food, eliminating waste, and contributing to a viable, economically positive circular economy system.

It was not reported if the ban applied to polystyrene containers only, or if it included such containers as No.5/polypropylene containers, which are reusable, microwaveable, and recyclable. In the case of the latter, they are not generally considered “single-use”, as they are often washed and reused multiple times. The same ABC article reported that plastic takeaway containers are “usually” used just once. Hobart’s Council has seized that opening to consider the ban, in part, a public safety issue, citing health risks associated with reusing takeaway packaging.

To that point, Tom Ross, an associate professor in food microbiology at the University of Tasmania, said if good food-handling practices were observed, the risk was small. “As long as the container is pretty well clean and dry, the risk of any kind of cross-contamination is very low,” he told Helen Shield on ABC Radio Hobart.

Were all things considered?
What has also been failed to consider is that when consumers take a compostable food service container out of a given foodservice establishment, the likelihood that it will actually be composted declines dramatically. This is due to the fact that mainstream consumers won’t take the time to find a composting facility. Adam Gendell, associate director at the US NGO Sustainable Packaging Coalition, pointed out that the inconvenience of recycling is a key detriment to increasing recycling rates. It follows that even if packaging is marked as “compostable”, consumers don’t know if or where they can compost correctly (industrial VS home), and as a result, is likely to get tossed in the recycle bin where it will contaminate that stream. When compostable packaging ends up in “regular” trash bins and ultimately finds its way into a landfill, it does not “naturally biodegrade” as some manufacturers erroneously claim, but actually contributes to methane emissions.

According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, introductions of food packaging in Australia with a “compostable” claim have fallen 84% between 2015 and 2017.

his disconnect between food service operators offering compostable take-away containers, cups, and utensils, and consumer understanding of what they can do with it if they cannot easily compost it, makes the effort largely null and void—with the exception of the positive buzz the retailer receives for the effort, if not the actual results. Harvey conceded this point when he stated, “We know consumers want to do their bit to help the environment, but we also know they are busy and often won’t go out of their way to help.”

A cursory examination of Hobart’s otherwise well considered Waste Management Strategy 2015-2030, makes little mention of collecting, sorting, and composting of food-grade compostable packaging, other than home and garden composting—the conditions of which don’t support the environments necessary for industrial-level food-grade packaging composting.

Under the plan, which is part of the council’s Zero Waste to Landfill strategy, it is said that Hobart will “eventually” have a compost facility system for commercials outlets. However, it is not specified when this may be. It is doubtful such a facility could be built and collection infrastructure brought on-line in time to respond to the 2020 ban.

Harvey said one-third of Hobart’s food retailers already used compostable items and much resistance isn’t expected. However, Hobart business owners have a different take on that. Steve Old from the Tasmanian Hospitality Association was upset his organization had not be warned about the move. “The frustration for us is there’s been no consultation, no talking to businesses at all,” he said.

He also said the proposal had attracted broad public support. That is typical, if not telling. Consumers generally respond positively to bans of packaging, and find the idea of compostable packaging to be sexy. The rub is they don’t always understand the implications from a sustainable materials management (SMM) perspective or from a holistic economic position.

All this said, should the Hobart’s Council be recognized for doing something at addressing foodservice packaging waste, or should it be taken to task for not fully understanding the realities, implications, and alternatives to knee-jerk packaging bans?

David Luttenberger is a Global Packaging Director at Mintel, with 26 years of diverse global packaging experience.

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