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:
“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?
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.
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.