Is cornstarch plastic packaging (PLA) compostable or recyclable?

Filed in Blog by on July 14, 2009 49 Comments
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Marks and spencer cornstarch packaging

Marks and spencer cornstarch packaging

A year ago I wrote to Marks and Spencer about their cornstarch derived plastic packaging. As part of their ‘plan A‘ (because there is no plan B), Marks and Spencer announced they would be using more and more of this cornstarch derived plastic for packaging their products.

I asked whether I could just throw this packaging in the bin (yeah right; as if) or whether it needed something special doing with it.

Neil Brown, customer advisor at that time, wrote:

Cornstarch packaging

“The beauty of cornstarch packaging, is that you can dispose of it exactly how you like and the result will still be environmentally friendly.  If you would like to, you can put the packaging onto a compost heap or send it to landfill, and after seventy two days it will have completely broken down.”

Well that sounds just too good to be true, doesn’t it?

I then responded with the following questions:

  • Are you using this packaging for all your goods?
  • Are there any disadvantages to it?
  • if it breaks down after 70 days, how long a shelf life can products have in it?
  • How does it compare to petroleum based plastic?

Convenience foods

Neil had left he building by the time I followed this up a few weeks ago, so Alex Hawkins took over to help me with my first question. I was then referred to a packing technologist for the rest. In response to the first question, Alex said

“We don’t use corn starch for all our packaging at the moment – it is mainly used for products in our Food To Go range such as sandwich containers”.

The rest of the answer followed duly, a week later, as promised.

12% packaging reduction

“Further to my e-mail on Wednesday, I have now heard back from our Packaging Technologist. The following is quite a long and detailed response, and I hope it will answer all your questions. Firstly, I would like to take this opportunity to update you and report that we have completed our second year audit for Packaging Reduction and are currently at 12% reduction across all of Foods.

Cornstarch, as we have stated previously, is a compostable material.  We continue to support these new and innovative materials and commit to using them wherever practically possible.

Compostable PLA

You will appreciate that as the materials are new, our knowledge is constantly increasing.  Since our last e-mail, we have needed to change our composting logos to reflect the different types of composting that is available.  The starch in cornstarch packaging is known in the industry as PLA.  PLA is compostable, but practically, the ideal conditions are in industrial composting facilities rather than in customers’ homes.

Although they will eventually compost at home, we have had some customers experience difficulties in getting the packaging to compost properly. We believe this is due to the customers not being able to achieve ideal composting temperatures for a sufficiently long enough period.

We appreciate that this news will be disappointing given our last response.  However, we only use PLA in window patches on sandwiches, where we advise customers to recycle the pack – PLA in small quantities on cardboard does not represent an issue for cartonboard recycling mills. (my bolding and italics – this surprised me; you?)

Limitations of cornstarch packaging

Sadly we cannot use cornstarch packaging across all foods as there are many limitations to the material, the most important being that they are not suitable for use in the microwave or conventional oven. This immediately severely limits their applications.

We also have to consider functional barriers in order to meet shelf life and PLA is not always suitable for all products.  We continue to research Home Compostable materials, but we have decided, in light of recent learnings, and in order to provide real clarity on this complex subject, only to use Home Compostable materials for the time being.  We have decided not to use the so called ‘degradable’ materials and ‘oxy-degradeable’ materials as we believe them to be misleading. (again, my bolding and italics – interesting stuff in the light of recent conversations about biodegradable plastic bags carrying more ecological harm than good here at my zero waste)

Protection of food

To sell different food formats we need to consider different material types.  In an ideal world we would be able to consider one material against another with only environmental considerations in mind.  However, as a food retailer we must consider the protection of food first and foremost.

In fact to incur food waste is significantly more damaging to the environment than packaging utilisation. (would love to hear your thoughts on this) As such, we do use plastics on many products and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Benefits of plastics

Plastics are lightweight so reduce transport costs, they have an excellent carbon footprint, (??) they have good functional properties and come in a range of types that are suitable for both the chill chain, the microwave and the conventional oven.

We can include a recycled post consumer waste content and as such, we create a recycling waste stream for the materials that encourages Local Authorities to collect them.

I hope that response has been helpful and please do feel free to conact me with any further questions.”

So there you go. I would love to know what you think and if you have any further questions to put to Marks and Spencer about their packaging; I found their  response very interesting and it bought up some key points for me.

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About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (49)

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  1. John Costigane says:

    Hi Mrs Green,

    M&S have given a full explanation of the shortcomings of PLA, which is commendable. However, it is disappointing that home compostable material may never be found. What we are left with is the current mess where plastic waste collects in household bins.

    An alternative would be for M&S to take back all the PLA for industrial composting, using a return fee system. This would stop the otherwise inevitable waste result.

    The food waste mantra is dragged out again to dodge responsibilty for their wasteful practices, which councils and householders have to pay for. That situation will not last indefinitely. They should look at reusable/refillable systems, using containers, which produce Zero Waste.

  2. Peter says:

    Excellent piece and investigation.

    I still concern myself with what these things end up as. Dredging up my old science, ‘matter cannot be created or destroyed’, so you have to end up with something. The question is what… and where.

    In a worst case (IMHO) you end up with a plastic soup, that may not choke a turtle but still doesn’t sound great in the water table. And I have to ponder what gasses are given off during the process too; I doubt they are always benign, GHG-wise.

    I’ll have to revisit my little investigation a few years back at the time of the plastic bag bans.

    Frankly reuse is optimal, but I would say that, and concede it is not always practical (though I am pondering how bulk schemes may work for certain products, and indeed one is being trialled by ASDA).

    Which brings us back to effective recycling. Trouble is, that means sensible coordination and cooperation between manufacturers, retailers, LGAs and… the public. Not working out so well so far.

    If we are to have these breakdown-style products ‘in the mix’ they do need to be separated and delivered to appropriate processing facilities… just as one should any other recyclate. However, the plethora of options countrywide, from pack types to disposal systems, coupled with all the competing label systems, does not seem designed to encourage an already less than motivated public to act in complement.

    I am having a rather unique ‘problem’ with my waste plastics, which I retain to find uses for, in that some I have stored are indeed breaking down, which makes them useless to me. Hence I am having to train up on the various labelling options to split them out. Frankly, embossed black on black doesn’t help this much, especially as at my age my eyesight is no longer what it used to be.

  3. Chris says:

    The information provided to you by M&S is quite accurate in its assessment of PLA. What is a little disappointing is that the company introduced the material to the market BEFORE they fully researched its compostability. The producer of that material – NatureWorks in the USA – makes it quite clear in their marketing literature that it can only be effectively composted in industrial systems and not in home heaps.

    Unfortunately, it sometimes seems that UK retailers allow their packaging decisions to be made by marketeers rather technologists, which is a little disappointing. Last year I met a packaging specialist for Tesco – he said then was the only person in the company’s packaging team with plastics expertise!

    However, the real issue around packaging is that what the consumer sees as a waste of money is a real cost saving measure for the growers and retailers. And in agricultural and retailing environments, cost is direclty related to energy use and so to carbon dioxide emissions. The UK organisation that is charged with minimising waste – WRAP – has recognised this and acknowledged that the environmental harm caused in the UK by packaging is very small compared to the harm caused by food waste.

    WRAP estimates that more than one third of food sold in the UK is wasted. If we can address this problem we can reduce emissions released during the growing, transportation and packaging of food by much more than can be achieved by playing around with the type of packaging used.

  4. John Costigane says:

    @Chris: HI Chris, Do you never tire of the plastic packaging industry justifying their wasteful practices, by the preposterous claim that the material is to reduce food waste for the consumer. The truth is it is used purely to raise profits for the retailers. Meanwhile, householders and councils foot the bill. This is wrong and should be rectified.

    Another factor for you to consider is fact that I do not use your plastic waste and have absolutely no food waste. This shows your food waste mantra to be a false premise.

    The Zero Waste perspective is to aim to reduce waste, mainly plastic in my experience, by using reusable /refillable systems. This should be your target as well.

  5. Mrs Green says:

    @John Costigane: Hi John, it would be a good idea for M&S to offer a return deposit on their packaging for composting.

    @Peter: Hi Peter; what fascinating stuff – about some of the plastics degrading. Worrying too – it’s these types that concern me most of all; the ones that just break down into slivers

    @Chris: .Hello Chris; thank you for taking the time to comment. It’s good to hear your opinion on this.
    It is a shame that composting options were not more fully investigated by M&S before this cornstarch packaging hit the shelves.

    I understand the argument about packaging preventing food waste, but am yet to be convinced with objective assessment, research and figures.

    My take is that the problem lies with our society.

    We are extremely wasteful through total lack of care. Food doesn’t go off any quicker than it has done for millennia; but we live in such a disposable culture, that we no longer take time to care.

    The housewife is virtually obsolete; her role superseded by the ‘need’ to go out and earn money (in order to consume more of the stuff that will make her and her family happy) and money is the current currency of value in our world. Not the woman (or man) who can make 3 days meals from a couple of potatoes or grow their own stuff …

    You won’t reduce food waste by better plastic packaging; you’ll reduce it by getting back to the root of the problem which is lack of understanding by householders and corrupt values in our society.
    If we remember the ‘waste not want not’ mantra of the war and post-war ear, we won’t have this problem I’m sure and neither will there be the need for so much packaging.

  6. Nick Palmer says:

    Hi Mrs Green,

    Most people like us would try to compost our tissues etc. I noticed a while ago that Coop tissues, in addition to wood pulp have a “wet strength additive”. Apparently most, if not all, products like this have these additives which are a form of resin. I phoned up the Coop’s freephone number to find out what this substance does when the tissue is composted and although I didn’t find out exactly what it breaks down to, they did say CO2, water and “biomass”.

    I had been worried that it may not break down like the polyester in tea bags. Did you know about this? Just about all tea bags have a polyester additive in the paper so they can be heat sealed in manufacture. When they are composted they leave behind a faint polyester skeleton which is particularly obvious in wormeries where it can build up over a year or so to make almost impenetrable (for the worms) layers . I haven’t seen any other web site (even CAT – Centre for Alternative Technology) that is aware of this plastic contamination due to tea bags because they all recommend composting them. Since I found out, I tear the bag (when cooled) and tip the leaves into the compost and throw the bag into the bin.

  7. Mrs Green says:

    Hi Nick,

    Good to see you. I never knew about the tissues; but I did know about tea bags; how confusing. I’m going to look out for these tissues when I’m next in the Co-Op and see if I can find out more. Thanks for the heads up. The answer given to you wasn’t particularly helpful.

    I think you are right to tear up the teabags if you are not sure. Perhaps it is time for a loose tea revolution!

  8. Nick Palmer says:

    Hi Mrs Green,
    Basically, I suspect all facial tissues have these additives, almost certainly toilet tissue and kitchen towel roll too. I think it was just that the Co-ops environmental policy meant that they listed the additive in the ingredients – and that the other manufacturers don’t bother…

  9. Mrs Green says:

    @Nick Palmer: Hi Nick; you know this is something I have simply never thought of before. So you think they might be in all products and because labelling laws are such a farce the manufacturers don’t have to mention it. It’s worth looking into isn’t it; to find out the facts.
    I always feel good about the Co-ops transparency; to me they are one of the better supermarkets.

    Fascinating stuff – thank you!

  10. Layla says:

    Hi Nick! I ADORE you!! :)
    I’ve been wondering about the teabags for like, forever! :)
    & the other tissues/paper towels etc too!

    It would still be great to know about all teabags & tissues, & ideally making all manufacturers report all ingredients & processes (total transparency) would be best!! :)
    /any efforts on this anywhere yet? Would TOTALLY sign that petition!!/

    We don’t drink much tea in teabags, just the occasional few.. mostly just use herbal teas picked by family members or relatives.. Yeah you need a sieve, but it’s all fully compostable & no trash!

    Mrs G, awesome investigation! It’s great you did follow up (as we can see what can happen..) & by now they also have more info than last year!

    I agree with John that refillable systems would be better in the long run! If milk-o-mats exist & have proven successful, why not have other things refillable or in returnable packaging too?

    you can buy beer from a refillable canister, poured into your glass, why not other stuff?
    must think of any pertinent question – I may have some. Or have you written to them already?

    How does lighter packaging reduce transport costs? Do the transport companies charge per kilo? I suspect packaging recovery companies may!) Is transport not calculated by volume? – I would REALLY like to know how they calculate this!
    & no packaging surely is more lightweight than plastic packaging?

    The highlighted parts – you’re gonna inquire about this, right? :)
    PLA in small quantities on cardboard does not represent an issue for cartonboard recycling mills – Have you asked the mills directly too? It’s surprising what you get if you ask different people..

    They also say to be using ‘Home Compostable’ stuff, & they say PLA doesn’t compost well at home-? now which is it? if they’re saying they’re staying away from just ‘degradable’ then good for them, indeed!

    must say I’m partly impressed with their efforts, would still like to see some inconsistencies explained & improved.. ideally zero waste organizations & people would be talking to the packaging experts & decision makers in shops worldwide!! :) & together better alternatives could be found..

  11. Mrs Green says:

    Hi Layla, one thing about transportation costs is that if you run a car, it is said that reducing load, by taking things out of the boot for example, increases fuel economy.

  12. Chris Ramsay says:

    @John Costigane:

    I have successfully composted a few types of PLA products in my home compost pile: spoons from an ice cream shop, plates, and most recently, bowls from Annie Chun’s asian cuisine products. And definitely in less than 72 days.

    With the proper proportions of green/brown matter and a heavy dose of sunlight, almost everything I put in breaks down in less than 3 months. Minus the big sticks and thick wood chunks. We compost approximately 1500 pounds of scraps from the kitchen every year.

    If you set up the pile right, it’ll do it’s job.

    The compost I get as a final product is invaluable. I have a neighbor that spends hundreds of dollars on special soil, fertilizer, amendments, watering systems, etc. for his tomatoes. He even grows them in pots to control the soil balance just where he wants it. I grow my tomatoes in my garden, with a six inch mix of half soil and half compost. If I have some laying around, I may sprinkle on some tomato food once. But that’s it.

    My plants are healthier, put out twice the fruit, and are sweeter. Currently, my cherry tomato plants (Sweet 100s) are taller than me, and we have yet to pick one. He is jealous every year. Although this year they are so large I had to build another taller structure to keep them from crushing/tipping the tomato cages. Not a bad problem to have.

    BTW…I am not a big fan of the microwave food products. But Annie Chun makes more that a few tasty soup and noodle dishes that I keep on hand. Partly because I like them, but mostly because I can recycle/compost 98% of the packaging.

    http://www.anniechun.com

    I have kept a half dozen of the soup bowls as my kids like the shape and size. They use them for morning cereal or movie night popcorn for a few months until they crack somewhere. Then into the compost with the rest of them.

  13. John Costigane says:

    @Chris Ramsay: Hi Chris, It is good to see some positive outcomes with PLA, though the material is not specifically designed for all types of composting, damp composting for example.

    My view is that we should insist on low temperature composting material so that all home sites can use it. The Zero Waste perspective is to eliminate all single use plastic packaging (waste) and PLA does not meet the conditions for that.

  14. Zoe says:

    I’ve only just ready this post today but I think it is a very interesting issue. I have been putting biodegradable plastic, teabags and tissues in my compost for the past year.

    I usually do my supermarket shopping at Sainsbury’s, where the organic fruit and veg is wrapped in compostable plastic, which is made from maize, sugar cane or starch, and they say that it in tests it breaks down faster than a banana skin: http://www.j-sainsbury.com/cr/index.asp?pageid=69&year=archive&section=3 However it does not say whether the tests were based on industrial or home composting, and in practice I have found large bits of this ‘plastic’ that have not broken down. However some bits have so I don’t know if it’s just my compost bin (it is in the shade and so it might not get hot enough). I’ve now started cutting them up to help speed up the process.

    I also find that the teabags don’t break down as well unless I tear them open, but I have been putting the whole bag in. I use organic teabags – do you think that even they will have the polyester in? I did research whether teabags were ok to compost and everything I read said yes! Very frustrating.

    The tissues so far seem to have broken down ok but who knows if there are some invisible molecules of something nasty lingering behind :-(

  15. Chris Ramsay says:

    The bowl from Annie Chun break down real nice. The “compostable” plates and bowl I have been buying break down, but the top layer seems to be a plastic or complete different material as it is still present even after a few months. It’s thin and easy to pick out. But I think I will switch brands.

  16. Nick Palmer says:

    @Zoe: If you compost tea bags in a standard garden compost heap you probably won’t notice the polyester “skeleton” because the food waste will be “diluted” by all the other stuff plants, cardboard etc. Also the turning process will “scrunch up” the remains of the tea bag. Wormeries make the problem obvious because they use concentrated food waste and tea bags tend to be a fair proportion of that. Plus the worms don’t “scrunch up” the bags, they just nibble the contents and the paper part of the bag and leave the polyester alone. I don’t know if organic tea bags are different – I suppose they still have to seal the bags somehow.

  17. Adam Bell says:

    I am studying marketing at university and was wondering if anyone had the answer to my questions:

    Can corn starch products be used for dairy products (in particular yoghurt pots) ?
    What is the life expectancy of such packaging?
    If kept refrigerated does it last longer?
    Is it more expensive than standard polystyrene packaging (normal yoghurt pots) ?

    I would be extremely grateful if anyone could post some answers or even better email me some replies

    Adam – [email protected]

  18. Mrs Green says:

    @Adam Bell: Hello Adam, welcome to the site and good luck with your studies. I think your best bet would be to contact a plastics manufacturing company to ask these questions. Our focus is on helping householders reduce the amount of waste they send to landfill, and as such, our technical knowledge is limited.
    You could try the American Plastics Council – I’m not sure who the UK equivalent would be.

  19. Layla says:

    Hmm.. Adam, I think it’s awesome you are studying and researching this!!

    Like Mrs Green said, it would probably be best to ask around, manufacturers, chemists and elsewhere – not only for these questions, also for how really biodegradable and really eco they are: I wouldn’t trust the manufacturers or their scientists alone, on biodegradability issue it would maybe be good to contact Friends of the Earth or GAIA (Global Alliance Against Incinerators) and ask if they know any good independent scientists or studies..!!

    I think it might depend on how it’s made, any additives etc. You could also ask about packaging made of diary by-products etc.

    Personally I don’t trust ‘biodegradable’ plastics much, and it doesn’t really make sense to not biodegrade with yogurt in it.. Though if you google ‘biodegradable packaging yogurt’ quite some links pop up, so you might do some reading.. some stuff pops up if you add ‘corn starch’ to the mix, but I’m too busy to google right now :) Wishing you to find out lots, and do tell us if you find anything exciting!

  20. Steve says:

    Hi Mrs Green

    I have been reading your comments and articles over the last few weeks and would firstly just like to say how brilliant all of this is and how much I have enjoyed reading and visiting your site.

    My comments here are in no way meant to annoy anybody so please do not think I am writing here merely cause a stir or get a reaction from you fine people. I am very interested in waste disposal and the methods available for certain materials. PLA as mentioned is 100% biodegradable and compostable, fair enough, but when PLA breaks down, it produces CO2 and water, the water obviously harmless, but the CO2, in large quantities, as we know, can damage the atmosphere, (by the way, i am by no means implying that this is more damaging than landfill).

    Also with composting, the material is broken down and all energy pretty much lost. PLA eventhough environmentally friendly, does still need energy to be produced, and by wasting this energy, are we not having a very linear, not cyclical approach to packaging production and energy.

    Basically, what I am saying is, PLA is a good product in terms of it being biodegradable, however, rather than being composted, would it be better off going down a waste stream with other plastics and non recyclable waste, such as incineration with energy recovery, where disposal does not leave us only with CO2 and water, but energy?

    I would love to hear your comments on this, and once again, thank you Mrs. Green on your work here, I really have enjoyed reading.

  21. Steve says:

    sorry, in the above comment, at the end of para 3, it is meant to say “we are having a very linear, not cyclical approach to packaging production and energy.”

  22. John Costigane says:

    @Steve: I agreed with your comments until you dropped incineration into the mix. There is no Zero Waste outcome to EFW(Incineration) but 25% waste. This is mostly bottom ash which has recently been shown to leach explosive hydrogen, rendering it useless. The 7% toxic fly-ash is even worse. This stuff is extremely hazardous, having caused nightmare developmental damage to the young of Corby many years ago. Can we really go this route?

    My view is to minimise EFW(Incineration) by using Zero Waste Alternatives like AD (for food waste). Happily, this technology is developing fast, after much talk and little action in previous years.

  23. Steve says:

    @John Costigane: Hi John

    I completely understand what you are saying and yes I agree, incineration is a method of waste disposal which is by no means zero waste. The issue, however, is that with the current consumer market and the way in which the vast majority of the UK public live their lives, it is near on impossible for complete zero waste, waste disposal techniques to be anything more than ‘pie in the sky’ at the moment. I agree with you, that all food waste should go down an AD route, there is absolutely no need for it to ever reach any other method of treatment but with plastic waste, AD, composting, vast majorities of recycling, cannot deal with it. This is where I think EfW incineration may have a place in the waste stream.

    The main issue we must overcome in order to reach zero waste is the way in which we live our lives. Everywhere you turn, there is plastic of some kind, almost every product we touch will have come into contact with plastic packaging at some time and this is because, we as joe consumer, will not tolerate our fruit being bruised or our meat going out of date in two days time rather than six days. Unfortunately, it is the high standard the consumer now expects which is why plastic is still being used in such high abundance. In addition, PLA and corn starch packaging are not alternative materials for the plastics we use. PLA is twice as expensive, crinkle to the touch and has a very poor moisture barrier properties, this makes it highly practical for fruit and veg or salads but totally impratical for meats or snacks, which are packed in a specially designed atmospheres to maintain freshness.

    Sorry I have gone off on a little bit of a tangent there, basically, what I am saying is that whilst I 100% whole heartedly agree with you that a zero waste disposal technique is what is without doubt the best form of waste management, I cannot see it happening in the near future and therefore alternative methods must be devised.

    For materials like plastics, what can we do? at the moment, its either landfill or energy recovery. Incineration, does indeed produce awful waste but with modern technology, this has been cleaned up by large amounts, there is an incineration plant in Denmark, where, when tested, the air directly outside the incineration plant was cleaner than that of the city due to the strict air purification methods the EU now demands from incinerators. Therefore I agree that incineration is not the be all and end all but is it not the go between until we find better methods? surely its not as bad as landfill?

  24. John Costigane says:

    @Steve: Hi Steve,

    I am glad that you see the value of Zero Waste which has also risen to prominence in the political sphere. Plastics, of course, are the main problem though even here there are positives. Commingled collection for householders deals with a big range of plastic types and supermarkets (ASDA locally and Sainsbury’s for the Green family) take back polythene bags of all kinds for recycling. This latter is another recent change which would have been unthinkable even 6 months ago.

    Landfill and incineration are both bad options but it will indeed take a long time to eradicate both practices. I accept that EfW will be pushed hard by the waste industry as the best option from their perspective but the public will continue to resist the technology and planning officers’ proposals will continue to be rejected by councils, concerned about the associated increased morbidity downwind , and many other relevant matters. One other point is the 25 year PFI associated with EfW Incinerators where fees remain constant over the period and as waste arisings will continue to fall with time this makes it a bad deal for householders and councils.

  25. Steve says:

    @John Costigane: Hi John

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the polythene bags, six months ago it would have been unthinkable and this is a really positive thought, that maybe in six more months even more advances will be made. My main concern however, is the type 3, 4 and 5 plastics, unfortunately plastic carrier bags are often type 2. These plastics are the real problem as even in their purest form they are difficult to recycle, so the minute you throw inks and colours into the mix or mulit layers of different polymers, we have a problem of not what to do with it but how the hell do we get rid of it, as without it being destroyed it will be around forever, which in my opinion is completely unacceptable.

    The thing is that, again, I completely agree with you that councils will reject incineration as will the public, and in all honesty, I would also be rejecting it also, if I didnt believe it to be, currently, the most suitable alternative to landfill for our non recyclable and non compostable waste. Also, I don’t know if you heard about the UK hazardous waste scandal in Africa, i have posted the link to an article below, but if our local councils are engagng in this type of waste disposal, I am somewhat disillusioned with what they are claiming is actually being recycled in the first place, a somewhat pesimistic outlook I know.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/dumped-in-africa-britain8217s-toxic-waste-1624869.html

  26. John Costigane says:

    @Steve: Hi again Steve,

    Some plastics are best avoided and the trend is all about buying unpackaged items, where affordable, reusing cloth bags, instead of the throwaway plastic bag, and plastic containers, with the last avoiding a waste impact for many years, if ever. You seem to prefer EfW to landfill when both have big negatives. There are other technologies (Pyrolysis and Gasification) which are also being trialled though well behind AD developments. Our viewpoint is consumer based but has a natural overlap with the anti-incineration people. There are incinerator topics on myzerowaste which would give you a better idea of the range of views held. Feel free to read them.

    I was aware of the scandal of e-waste being sent to Africa (Brazil was another destination covered in the media recently). There is a lack of rigour in recycling practice due to the development stage it still occupies. This can be sorted by having full audit trails for waste quantities and enforcing strict actions against offenders: a law and order matter.

  27. Steve says:

    @John Costigane: Hi John

    Thank you once again for your reply

    I agree with everything you say here. I do indeed personally prefer incineration to landfill, but as with many things this is purely opinion and I fully understand the strong opposition to this style of waste disposal, and just to reiterate, I am not in favour of this form of waste disposal as a long term solution, just until we can develop recycling methods and hopefully from there reach the goal of zero waste, which I am 100% behind and will continue to do my upmost to fulfill.

    John it has been a pleasure talking with you over thepast few days and I wish you all the best

  28. Poppy says:

    @Steve:

    Problem with that idea Steve, is that if people are free to dispose of their unwanted waste in an incinerator, the incentive to do anything more constructive will disappear.

  29. Jane says:

    People seem very ignorant of what their Council Tax is for. If they were to understand properly that Councils provide many other vital services and not just waste collection then maybe they would be more proactive in making sure that they take up all the recycling services that their Council offers so that their Council can continue with their other important work. So often I hear people complaining that the rubbish collection is the only Council service that they use… They forget they were once babies and schoolchildren and may in time become elderly and what if there’s a fire?

  30. Steve says:

    @Poppy: Hi Poppy

    I agree with you to an extent, but is it not what is happening with landfill at the moment? what i was saying is that simply replace landfill with incineration (as if it were that simple), so we can at least gain some energy from the waste, whilst developing the technology to work toward 100% recycling and eventually zero waste. I have looked at the arguments which claim that incineration hinders recycling, but by looking at our European friends, such as Germany, they incinerate almost five times the amount of waste we do but have higher recycling rates, the form of waste treatment which tkes the hit is landfill.

  31. Mrs Green says:

    @Steve: Hi Steve, welcome to the site and thanks so much for your valuable contributions on this subject.

    This is a very complex topic and unfortunately, because I am ‘just a housewife’ ;) and not a biochemist I don’t have all the facts at my disposal – this makes it very challenging to make an informed choice.

    All I will say is that my personal opinion is that incineration is a terrible waste of resources. I feel that ‘rubbish’ is not rubbish at all; it is simply a resource we do not yet know how to deal with. It’s like the anology of a weed simply being a plant in the wrong place.
    It concerns me that if we burn things they are lost forever. If they are in landfill at least one day in the future, when we figure things out we can recover this material. A crazy notion I know, but one which I seriously believe might happen when we wake up and realise what we have been doing.

    it would be far better if we could do away with compostable / biodegradable plastics in my opinion and concentrate on 3 or 4 polymers which could cover all our needs AND be recycled in this country. But i fear that is a long way off and maybe will never happen. This, like the zero waste ideal, is perhaps a pie-in-the-sky idea.

    I hear you when you say that incineration might currently be the most suitable alternative to landfill for non recyclable and non compostable waste but we have to look at our future and once stuff has been burned, it is lost forever.

    I’m not sure WHAT the answer is. I know what I would like (everyone to spend more time sorting their rubbish and reducing it by 1/2 or more) but I’m not sure what we can do. The Japanese village of Kamikatsu is an inspiration and i wonder if they can do it, why can’t we?
    http://mzw.wpengine.com/2008/07/zero-waste-town-in-eastern-japan/

    Thanks for a thought provoking conversation!

  32. Nick Palmer says:

    @Steve:

    Hi Steve,

    The whole point about why we talk about composting, waste/energy/greenhouse gas reductions etc. is because we are not living in a sustainable way. The United Nations Environment Program identified a couple of years that we are living at least 20% beyond what the planet can sustainably supply and so clearly we need to make big moves to address this, or we are in for some grief.

    As an analogy, it’s no good jumping, say, 6 feet to cross the ten foot crevasse that yawns between our current society and sustainability. Similarly, such things as incinerators, compost-able plastics etc are diversions that have green “feel-good” aspects to them but only 6 feet worth, not the whole enchilada. These apparent benefits are largely greenwash in the marketing of products to a naive public – the marketing industry shares a lot of the responsibility for the mess we are now in because they seem to work on the principle that if people think they are getting something, then that is just about as good as if they actually are getting it. In short, their business is identifying “needs”, amplifying them into greeds then, with their evil twin the advertising industry, to set about marketing the various wares to satisfy these created needs/greeds. The incinerator industry has tidal waves of greenwash flooding around which sound sensible to short term analyses which do not sufficiently consider the long term goals.

    Incineration with energy recovery, particularly if that includes district heating, is viewed as better than landfill and, from the greenhouse emissions perspective (particularly methane) that is probably right – but it’s not good enough. We can’t cross the gap like that. Incinerators need a supply of burnable rubbish for their 25-30 year design life and so are directly antagonistic towards waste reduction measures. Anyway, the amount of energy they actually recover is a fraction of the embodied manufacturing energy of most waste. “Recovering” that fraction of the energy out of burning waste only appears, at a casual glance, to be a plus because most never think of the much larger amount of energy (not to mention the generated pollution, resource depletion, habitat change etc.) that was originally used to extract or mine, transport, process and manufacture the goods that became “waste” in the first place.

    It’s no good promoting incinerators by only looking at (what appear to be green) marketing points. Ultimately, any system which demands a steady supply of combustible waste will ensure that we will fail to make the other side of the crevasse. Proponents of the idea that they will provide a stopgap, while we are waiting for recycling/re-use systems to arrive, miss the point of how the presence of a convenient disposal system mitigates against the arrival of those systems.

    It’s also no good using shallow LCAs (Life Cycle Analyses) to point out the current shortcomings with plastic recycling and returnable schemes – these will take a long time to sort out sufficiently. Pressure and economic incentives will need to be applied to “encourage” manufacturers to change their materials, transport and packaging systems; ultimately their factory locations, product design and manufacturing methods too.

    It took almost 100 years for the consumer society to get where we are now – we can spare 20 years to put right what once went wrong by re-imagining things sustainably, but we will have to ignore the siren corporate calls for easy disposal technology.

    One of the chess moves that will lead to a sustainable society being created is the instituting of reliable collection of recyclable material ahead of the moment when there will be enough of a supply for most manufacturers to commit to greatly reducing, or eliminating, the use of “virgin” material. Thus we need a “build it and they will come” period for recyclable/returnables combined with economic carrots and sticks applied to discriminate against the use of virgin material and one-trip systems, so that the loop gets closed.

    To cross the metaphorical crevasse successfully might need a hard ten mile frustrating sideways detour which, for a time might not appear to be getting closer to (or may initially even draw further away from) our destination, whereas moves like the big “incinerator jump” across might appear, with a shallow LCA analysis, to be rapidly crossing the ten foot gap to sustainability, only will prove to fail disastrously later on, having wasted lots of time.

    There is currently an awful lot of faux-sustainability thinking in the corporate planning arena and this is largely due to a failure to realise that business-almost-as-usual, but with a few bright green knobs stuck on, will simply not cut the sustainability mustard. Simultaneously, it muddies the waters with promises of apparently clean, useful solutions and relatively painless “keep right on consuming” subliminal messages which unfortunately will prove to be red herrings and a tragic waste of time and effort and will, in due course, end up with the planet and us broken at the bottom of the crevasse.

  33. Peter Davis says:

    Why have you not published my comments?

  34. Antonio Pachowko says:

    May I remind everybody that we are bound by the conservation of Mass principle and that waste that is landfilled or burnt with or without EFW will end up in some form in land, water or air. That is the fact of life. The problem of fly ash and bottom ash (known as slag- nothing personal Mrs G) from EFw is nothing compared to that produced by the coal Power station where heavy and toxic metals (some rare, having high values) are produced. They have looked into reclaiming these metals but the quantity present make it costly to do so.

    Let me get it straight all emission from power stations are strictly controlled and monitored. This includes SOx (sulphur dioxide, sulphur trioxide), NOx (nitrogen monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, dinitrogen pentoxide), particulates, toxic metals, carbon monoxide. SOx are removed by injecting a spray of quicklime in the reactor or via a scrubbing system, NOx are reduced by steam injection or via a platinum catalyst, particulates are removed via high temperature cyclones and an electrostatic precipitator (deal with fly ash), toxic metals are encapsulated (dealing with bottom ash) and carbon monoxide is reduced by burning in excess air. Gasification (burning in a reducing atmosphere, lower than the stoichmetric coefficient requirements) produced mainly hydrogen and carbon monoxide but has an advantage that chemical can be produced from them such a methanol , a solvent and good starter for other chemicals, Pyrolysis (burning in the absence of oxygen) can produce a variety of chemicals) but all these technology require areliable source of raw materials, and as Gasification and pyrolsis require a raw material with a stable composition then I feel that it would be difficult to design such plants. All three technology require rubbish but efw is not such chemical composition dependent. That is why it is preferred over gasification and pyrolysis. Designing with avariable feed stock is an engineers nightmare.

  35. Teresa says:

    @Mrs Green: This might be of interest.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/mar/06/rubbish-landfill-biodegradable-consumables-rubber

    Because it’s biodegradable it gets littered and takes a while to actually biodegrade. I pick up rubber bands dropped by postal delivery workers and post them in the post boxes. They are either too lazy or too rushed not to drop them or if they do pick them up again.

    I agree with you about incineration. More energy is saved through recycling than is created from incineration.

  36. Antonio Pachowko says:

    @Teresa: I think people need to be made aware of the laws of thermodynamics. Law 1 states that “energy cannot be created or destroyed but converted from one form to another” recycling is prefereable for dry materials such as glass, metal, plastics but for compostable material the argument is not clear cut. as carbon dioxide emmissions has to be balanced against methane emissions. Compositing is a slow process and in todays society quick solutions are required. The argument is not so clear cut and a range of technologies is required including incineration (well they have been do this with corpses for a number of years). Professor Roland clift once argued that paper should be burnt because you cannot recycle it forever and the deinking process produces waste, which has to be dealt with. He argue burning will be carbon neutral and do away with this current mineral oil problem. Most paper come from sustained forrest and this could deal with paper. Composting large amount of organic material takes up a lot of space whilst incineration in comparison will occupy relatively little. In cineration should not be discounted because of some NIMBYs who do not have the expertise to understand or design such a plant. hope that helps.

  37. Teresa Lewis says:

    I don’t agree with you at all. Paper can only be recycled a few times as the fibres get shorter each time. It could be shredded and composted then. Composting by local authorities is done at high heat and is quite efficient and speedy. When paper comes from sustained forests this means when trees are cut down there is replanting but it’s still a waste of land that could be used for agriculture or wilderness. A timber plantation is a sterile monoculture.

    Most of us on here are not happy with incineration except for medical waste as dioxins are produced. You are the exception.

  38. Mrs Green says:

    @Peter Davis: Peter, your comment is published on the thread you wrote it on which is over here : http://mzw.wpengine.com/2010/05/ms-reduce-packaging/

    @Antonio Pachowko: Thanks for the information Antonio. I know many of our readers (myself included) are not pro incineration. EVEN (and I say even because I am not at all convinced of the carefully monitored emissions) if they are safe then there is no getting away from the fact that incinerators are a waste of resources. Resources that could be used elsewhere.

    @Teresa: Thanks for the link Teresa; I do feel that ‘biodegradable’ clears people’s conscience to just drop things down anywhere, yes many items are biodegradable *in the right conditions*, otherwise they hang around for years causing litter.
    Just to let you know, Antonio isn’t the only person here who is pro incineration and we welcome all sides of the debate as long as things are kept respectful ;)

  39. Antonio Pachowko says:

    Mrs G

    Remember Plant are monitored by the EA and emissions are engraved in stone (and Law), breeches will result in heavy fines and repeated breaks in law will result in possible closure, so there is no reason why a plant should not be built . Remember we are taking about waste which has to be dispose off. We all need to recycle as much as possible but waste will still be generated and that is My point. I am recommending incineration after as much as possible is recycled but you can’t put your head in the sand as say that it doesn’t occur. Remember the choice for waste that cannot be reuse, reduce or recycled is to either landfill or burn. So if you are against incinerator then you must be pro-landfilling.

  40. Teresa says:

    We don’t have to choose between landfill or incineration because it’s up to the manufacturers only to manufacture and package with plastics that can be recycled and councils to collect a wider range of materials for recycling.

    However I think landfill is the lesser of the two evils as it takes up land space particularly in the countryside just outside cities so therefore the public can see how much more of the countryside will be eaten up by landfill sites if they continue to throw things away instead of first reducing their consumption, secondly finding alternative uses for things they have but no longer want, thirdly repairing what is broken and fourthly recycling. Dumping your clutter in the homes of friends and family is not an option either as it then becomes their problem to either find space for it or get rid of it. Charity shops are inundated with donated goods much of it is rubbish or the same as all the other stuff donated. I’d like to see an Emmaus in every major town and city as they recycle donated goods first and foremost and the profits go back into Emmaus to train and rehabilitate their volunteers.

  41. Teresa says:

    Plus Emmaus doesn’t blight high streets and instead uses disused warehouses and factories on industrial estates often close to city centres. It’s more popular on the continent than in Britain because charity shops are less common abroad.

  42. Antonio Pachowko says:

    Teresa you must learn to read properly I said ” Remember the choice for waste that cannot be reuse, reduce or recycled is to either landfill or burn” so all your points are moot. Even the best processes in the world produces waste and you have to plan for this and what to do with it. Incineration is prefered over landfill as at least energy is produced from it.

  43. Teresa says:

    Antonio, you must stop being so rude when leaving comments.

  44. Mrs Green says:

    @Antonio Pachowko: Hi Antonio, I understand there are emissions laws, but to be honest, many corporations have so much money that they just pay fines or they hire the best lawyers and get out of things. Am I pro landfill? Well not especially, but if there were literally two choices; landfill or incineration I would opt for landfill. My vision is one where all ‘rubbish’ is a resource and if we cannot responsibly dispose of a material it should not be created. At least with landfill we have the rather arduous opportunity of ‘mining’ resources when the technology finally catches up to reprocess them. once it’s incinerated, it’s gone and we’ve lost the resource.

    @Teresa: We have an Emmaus local to us; I should check it out and see what they are up to – thanks for the reminder…
    I don’t think Antonio was being rude; He was just voicing his opinion. Antonio has a lot of knowledge about these things, coming from a scientific background, and has taught me a lot about some of the things I really don’t want to necessarily think about ;) I don’t always agree with him, but I welcome open discussion and debate on the site.
    Play nicely people :D

  45. Antonio Pachowko says:

    I am a true Yorkshireman and believe in calling a spade a spade. Remember in business and science (even law) feelings mean nothing. You make decision based on facts and not on the heart or emotions. It seems to me that most people here are basing their decision on the heart and not on the head and this leads to bad decisions being made. The decision is based on risk and how the risk is managed, so that a high risk can become a law risk or vice versa (for an engineering point of view Risk is difficult to measure and define). For example most people will agree that water is harmless, we need it to survive, but if you knock you head and fall face first into a bowl of water you can drown (it has happened) so something harmless can become deadly. If you release hydrogen cyanide gas over a population of zero, then a high risk will become a low risk. That is the same with every plant built so that the population is not exposed in general. It all about risk minimisation and as I have sent previously most plants are designed to be environmental sound first, then safe, Engineers have developed tools in order to minimise impact on the environment. I always try to give a balanced approach and am being a realist because one thing you all forgot is that household waste only accounts for 10% of the total waste produced and this complicates matters alot.

  46. Teresa says:

    Feelings and intuition are just important as facts and logic. It’s been found that those who have the ability to feel make better gambling decisions than those who have lost that ability through brain damage.

  47. Teresa says:

    As for the household waste households are the end consumers so if we didn’t buy the stuff in the first place then industries would produce so much waste.

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