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Ken Fabian

Compostable food packaging

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So much food comes in some form of packaging - from supermarkets and food outlets - that it represents a huge waste stream. A lot of it is - technically - recyclable, but a lot of food packaging ends up contaminated with food residues and almost all recycling, even when it's done well, is more correctly downcycling. ie materials can be re-used only at lesser quality and usually only a few times before ending up unusable.

Separation of biological waste from other kinds of waste seems to me to be the most basic kind of separation and biological waste is the kind that can be most completely and efficiently recycled, via biological means. 

I can see that the kinds of foods that come in cans and glass, for long duration storage would be the most difficult to repackage, but is it technically possible? What might be the technical problems with all the short lived packaging being made of biological materials that can be composted or fed into sewage waste streams that can recover safe and usable biological materials?

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41 minutes ago, Ken Fabian said:

So much food comes in some form of packaging - from supermarkets and food outlets - that it represents a huge waste stream. A lot of it is - technically - recyclable, but a lot of food packaging ends up contaminated with food residues and almost all recycling, even when it's done well, is more correctly downcycling. ie materials can be re-used only at lesser quality and usually only a few times before ending up unusable.

Separation of biological waste from other kinds of waste seems to me to be the most basic kind of separation and biological waste is the kind that can be most completely and efficiently recycled, via biological means. 

I can see that the kinds of foods that come in cans and glass, for long duration storage would be the most difficult to repackage, but is it technically possible? What might be the technical problems with all the short lived packaging being made of biological materials that can be composted or fed into sewage waste streams that can recover safe and usable biological materials?

Why try to have all the packaging compostable?

Paper is a great packaging material, that is domestically compostable in small quantities and industrially so in larger ones.

Technical difficulties.

1) Lead in the print used to be a bar, less so these days.

2) Water. Paper is OK for wrapping dry foodstuffs, but if you loose the compostability if you adopt many of the waterproofing methods, although my local coucil provides allegedly compostible bags to hold food waste. (There is a weekly collection for this in my area.)

3) Political will. Recycling or reprocessing or re-engineering is a societal effort and only works if enough people support it. In Holland they have compost trains and mass composting of organic waste. But they do little or nothing to recycle cans or glass. In Germany it is the other way round. They do not recycle food waste in any way, but are very hot on mechanical recycling of cans and glass.

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On 10/10/2017 at 9:40 AM, studiot said:

Why try to have all the packaging compostable?

Two issues -

a) Ease and simplification of keeping different kinds of waste separated. That flows through to making other kinds of recycling simpler, by reducing the organics content within metals and plastics waste streams.

b) Biologically based materials are potentially 100% recyclable without loss or degradation of the essential components, into materials with economic values and environmentally sound uses. I think the more of that we can do the better.

I have been influenced by the writings - and real world achievements - of McDonough and Braungart that I first encountered in the doco "Waste Equals Food". Their book " Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things" further impressed me when the local library kindly sought out and provided a copy for me to read; it is made of polymer "paper" that can (in principle) be recycled to it's original quality rather than into a degraded, lesser quality. Even the inks, which are not toxic, can be separated out and re-used.

But in practice our collective efforts to create a circular economy for the materials we use, that can eliminate the continuing loss of resources to intractable waste, lags so far that I'm not sure it counts as a real goal.

Edited by Ken Fabian

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There's been some progress made. Beeswax based products for dry goods and agar(seaweed based) to store liquids.

I think they are going to take time to catch on. Very different looking than what we're used to.

QgRRia6.jpg

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9 hours ago, Ken Fabian said:

Two issues -

a) Ease and simplification of keeping different kinds of waste separated. That flows through to making other kinds of recycling simpler, by reducing the organics content within metals and plastics waste streams.

b) Biologically based materials are potentially 100% recyclable without loss or degradation of the essential components, into materials with economic values and environmentally sound uses. I think the more of that we can do the better.

I have been influenced by the writings - and real world achievements - of McDonough and Braungart that I first encountered in the doco "Waste Equals Food". Their book " Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things" further impressed me when the local library kindly sought out and provided a copy for me to read; it is made of polymer "paper" that can (in principle) be recycled to it's original quality rather than into a degraded, lesser quality. Even the inks, which are not toxic, can be separated out and re-used.

But in practice our collective efforts to create a circular economy for the materials we use, that can eliminate the continuing loss of resources to intractable waste, lags so far that I'm not sure it counts as a real goal.

Classification problems with this are.

1) Plastics are organic in nature.

2) Bones are inorganic

Practical problems are

3) It can take more energy and money to process the waste than to make replace the objects. Glass is basically silica and new bottles can be made just as well if not better from sand as from old bottles.

4) There is a current politcally inspired witch hunt against landfill. Some areas of the world would be totally flooded if it were not for landfill. Landfill is not, per se, a bad thing., although implementation can be.

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studiot - precision in language has it's place but did my more colloquial use of "organics" actually result in misunderstanding or is it pedantry? Biological? Bio-recyclable? "Biodegradable" has been stretched to plastics - err, particular kinds of polymers? - that break down into smaller bits but not necessarily into foodstuffs for organisms.

Are you just playing devil's advocate or do you really believe criticisms of landfill waste disposal - as commonly practised - are not rationally based but are principally grounded in political ideology? Doing things "better" can depend on how you define "better" but I don't see this issue as inconsequential or those urging improvements as engaging in a witch hunt.

There are, of course, genuine benefits to landfill disposal compared to absence of landfill disposal but for a lot of waste it is not the only available let alone best option. Concentrating and containing waste has public health benefits - better that broken glass, waste food and other biological or hazardous materials is there than scattered across the landscape. Spin off benefits such as land reclamation or methane production have to be balanced against the downsides but look rather dubious as grounds for using it rather than other options. Methane from landfill is primarily from the inclusion of unseparated food waste. I don't think elimination of landfill disposal is possible but it can be reduced significantly, perhaps improving it's suitability for land reclamation as a side benefit. Is it really the best we are capable of?

Energy costs do matter but the downsides are not intrinsic to energy use but to the way that energy is produced; processes like chipping and grinding hard biological materials to speed the breakdown process as well as that of remaking glass or metals or making food packaging from biological materials do take energy but there are better and worse options for making energy.

Endy, the agar materials look interesting, thanks. Cellulose and cornstarch looks good for film type wrapping. Paper/cardboards with wax coatings have been around a long time and bee, soy and other waxes look better for bio-cycling than mineral based paraffin waxes. Agar seems to be good for liquids at least for shorter storage times. Long term storage of liquids is probably going to remain difficult. 

Edited by Ken Fabian

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On 12/10/2017 at 0:07 AM, Ken Fabian said:

studiot - precision in language has it's place but did my more colloquial use of "organics" actually result in misunderstanding or is it pedantry? Biological? Bio-recyclable? "Biodegradable" has been stretched to plastics - err, particular kinds of polymers? - that break down into smaller bits but not necessarily into foodstuffs for organisms.

Are you just playing devil's advocate or do you really believe criticisms of landfill waste disposal - as commonly practised - are not rationally based but are principally grounded in political ideology? Doing things "better" can depend on how you define "better" but I don't see this issue as inconsequential or those urging improvements as engaging in a witch hunt.

There are, of course, genuine benefits to landfill disposal compared to absence of landfill disposal but for a lot of waste it is not the only available let alone best option. Concentrating and containing waste has public health benefits - better that broken glass, waste food and other biological or hazardous materials is there than scattered across the landscape. Spin off benefits such as land reclamation or methane production have to be balanced against the downsides but look rather dubious as grounds for using it rather than other options. Methane from landfill is primarily from the inclusion of unseparated food waste. I don't think elimination of landfill disposal is possible but it can be reduced significantly, perhaps improving it's suitability for land reclamation as a side benefit. Is it really the best we are capable of?

Energy costs do matter but the downsides are not intrinsic to energy use but to the way that energy is produced; processes like chipping and grinding hard biological materials to speed the breakdown process as well as that of remaking glass or metals or making food packaging from biological materials do take energy but there are better and worse options for making energy.

 

 

Thank you for replying.

This is a Science site and a good place for precision in language is in Science.

:)

I don't just believe landfill can be good, I have positive constructive evidence for this. I even gave you some, but you largely downplayed  this.

Energy costs are not confined to £.s.d. There are environmental costs as well.

 

Just suppose we built things to last longer and didn't need to repair them so often? (perfectly possible)

So we wouldn't need to haul millions of tons of waste china clay material from Cornwall to the Midlands to satisfy some political imperative.
This, of course, can't be done by alternative energy power but requires burning substantial amounts of fossil fuels.

I hope you are not falling into the trap of claiming that all schemes are bad because some schemes are bad.
I certainly don't claim that all schemes are good because some schemes are good.

Yes, of course, there are good and bad schemes about for recycling, some very good, some appallingly bad.

They should all be evaluated properly on their merits.

Municipal Engineers have been slowly improving things for the last century or so, only to have many of their best works subverted by loudmouth, know-it-all environmentalists.
In this climate, even die hard conservative politicians have latched on to the publicity value of espousing support for 'environmentalism', whilst at the same time cutting funding and permissions to environmentally benefical schemes and simultaneously promoting environmentally detrimental ones.

Edited by studiot

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Reading back over this thread I think I pointed out more of the benefits of landfill than you have - flood mitigation through, I thought by land reclamation, although I'm ready to be corrected, as a spin off benefit is about it. Nor have I suggested it does not serve a valuable function or that we not use it.

Have I been a loudmouth, know it all environmentalist by asking if we can improve the management of waste by suggesting we may be able to improve recycling of food packaging by preferentially using biological materials that can be recycled biologically into economically and environmentally useful products? I would suggest that, whilst use of methane from landfill - a product of large amounts of those materials in it - is being utilised more, it is not a good reason to fail to consider methods for making better use of those materials.

I have no problem with people campaigning about environmental concerns. I think that an absence of people who do would, given the capacity for political systems to neglect important issues in the absence of political activism, be a net step backwards. The capacity for policy makers to put populist gestures ahead of well thought and effective policy remains significant but that is not the fault of political activism.

Edited by Ken Fabian

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It's difficult to imagine a container for fizzy drinks that's robust enough to be useful, yet is compostible.

On the other hand, aluminium cans are very recyclable and I'm old enough to remember when glass bottles were returned to the shop (for the few pennies deposit [paid on them) and reused.

 

There is no "one size fits all" solution to packaging.

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John, I'm interested in whether that line can be redrawn, for ease of separation. Aluminium is, yes,  amongst the most recyclable of materials and drink cans get recycled more than most other recyclable materials around here because scrap metal businesses will pay money for them. People and charitable organisations collect and cash them in so the sorting is better done. But a lot of food packaging is widespread, not well sorted and is commonly mixed with food remnants. Some is already compostable but a lot of it isn't.

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Ken , I don't want you to get the impression I am getting at you personally or that I am against recycling, because neither are true.

But I do think that there is much more to the subject than you suggest.

In particular we need to change our outlook and behaviour, both as individuals and as a society to solve these problems.

Why for instance is food packaging a problem?

Well I would start by saying why is it necessary in the first place?

I was a child of the post war austerity, but didn't consider myself deprived compared to the war generation before me.

So I can't see why bananas need to be packaged in a plastic bag.

I can't see why potatoes need a plastic bag.

And I don't mean a carrier bag for either.

I can't see why tins of sweetcorn need a plastic shrinkwrap.

There is just too much unneccessary packaging about so we should start be getting rid of that.

Then what is wrong with paper for much of the rest of it?

Paper is recyclable, even if dirty, and some is biodegradable.

 

I don't want to turn your thread into a litany of spectacular debacles by the powers that be so here is a simple anecdote about my council, which by and large is pretty efficient and decades ago started a seriously beneficial landfill program, but was stopped by the idiots in Strasbourg / Brussels morerecently.

In the 1950s, the 1970s and the 1990s the centre of the town where I live was seriously flooded by the local river.
Back in the 1930s the council ahd started a program of increasing the bank height with landfill materisl, but properly done.
The landfill site moved slowly but steadily downriver and After a period of a decade or so the old site had settled and could be built upon.
This generated a sustainable flood protected patch of building land the council could release every 10 years or so. The sale helped keep the local taxes down and generated jobs.

This was win win win all round.

Then came the edicts from Strasbourg and the taxes on landfill.

Sidenote The politicians answer to everything is TAX IT.

Recycling became politically correct overnight and a freedom of information act request to the council revealed that immediately prior to this tax the refuse collection cost about £35 per year from my local taxes.

Immediatedly after it cost about £135.

And yes, they introduced waste food recycling.

Waste food!

Remember I said I was a child of austerity?

I don't waste food.

Yes I have biodegradable waste material as a result of preparation etc, call it food waste if you like.

But the bureaucratic mind specifies waste food.

In fact we now have an assorment of containers to put different types of waste in and if the dutmen don't like collecting something they leave it in the box or more likely strew it about the roadside.

We are not supposed to put 'waste food' in anything by the special biodgrabale bags (in the box) we can buy from the council, but the dustmen have yet to collect one of those bags, despite the fact it has the council's name and food waste bag clearly ptinted on it. The dustmen would rather empty the bag out and leave it behind.

 

Yes we really do need to get our act together.

 

 

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11 hours ago, Ken Fabian said:

John, I'm interested in whether that line can be redrawn, for ease of separation. Aluminium is, yes,  amongst the most recyclable of materials and drink cans get recycled more than most other recyclable materials around here because scrap metal businesses will pay money for them. People and charitable organisations collect and cash them in so the sorting is better done. But a lot of food packaging is widespread, not well sorted and is commonly mixed with food remnants. Some is already compostable but a lot of it isn't.

One reason why Aluminium is easy to recycle is that the process of melting it removes a lot of contaminants.
The dregs of beer or cola in a drinks tin stop being a problem by the time it has reached 600 C or thereabouts.

It is true that it's easy to pick out of a waste stream- the same is even more so for iron/steel; you just need a magnet.

Glass was recycled well by simply making sure that the milkman picked up the empties when he dropped off the mil;k on the doorstep. (Or by having a small army of kids who valued the 6d they could get by returning a bottle to the shop.)

It would be better to have compostable packing for food, but there are two mutually exclusive requirements.

The packing needs to prevent /retard decomposition of the food in storage yet it  needs to decompose when it's useful life is over. That might be possible, but it's not clear how to make it cheap.

 

Perhaps everything should be packed in aluminium tins. :)

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studiot -

We may be more in agreement than not. I understand dismay and frustration with those in positions of public trust and responsibility letting us down, engaging in gesture politics rather than well considered and well implemented policies; here in Australia for example, the national climate and energy debate is currently heading towards farce - only, given the seriousness, I don't find it funny.

Why food packaging? Leaving aside the GHG contributions - which many people are surprised to learn far exceeds in weight and volume that of 'solid' waste - the largest component of our own household's waste is food packaging. Chickens, worms and garden deal with our food waste but we are not typical. A lot more is, supposedly, recyclable, but I still say 'downcyclable'; a couple of re-uses at lesser quality at best and it ends up in landfill. Very little aluminium for us (and less glass as plastics replace it for many food items) but, like I say, we are not typical.

I spent time with my mother in Sydney in her infirmity and food waste separation was not even an available option within the "retirement village"; the amount of food waste going unseparated surprised and shocked me. Yes, it often is commonly an option, with separate bins for recyclable plastics and metals as well as those for food and garden waste but my understanding is that a lot of that plastic packaging makes it's way into food waste, food in the recyclables and both in the 'general waste' that goes to landfill. Good intentions and even good implementation are hindered by that.

It's all very well to say much of that packaging is not necessary - absolutely I agree; I just suspect that choice of packaging at the supplier level is simply more achievable than eliminating it and would lead to ease of and higher rates of separation at the household level. Like I said, what comes out of composting - and liquid waste processing - can and does have economic value. And costs for processing it of course - but reducing costs of processing at the waste end is worth some attention.

I don't know about globally but a quick search showed the US landfill is it's third largest source of atmospheric methane, because of food waste - which is on top of better managed sites where methane is a spin off that is utilised. I don't see reducing it as insignificant.

John -

Where the materials have sufficient monetary value there is motivation - and better rates of recycling. Where they don't is where it isn't done so well.  Not so sure that heat is or should be the primary means of dealing with residuals in metal or glass containers - rinsing and incorporation into liquid waste streams would be more usual, with heat for final residues - air pollution issues?

It may be that no viable and cost effective replacements for metal, glass or, increasingly, plastics will emerge  - and recycling methods for those will continue to improve,  even to seeing less of it being 'downcycling' with more reuse at the original quality. I still think it's worth some efforts to explore new possibilities.

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1 hour ago, Ken Fabian said:

studiot -

We may be more in agreement than not.

I think we probably are.

 

But you seem to think it unimportant to reduce unneccessary packaging, such a step would again be

win win win

Since it would surely save money as well as achieving environmental aims.

I regard reduction of waste as a primary step.

A point or question about packaging.

Surely if the primary packaging is adequate, secondary, tertiary or even (God forbid) quaternary packaging should remain uncontaminated by food, n'est pas?

 

Again I take issue about landfill, and you seem to have ignored a perfectly good example I posted as to how and why.

Further you seem to have missed entirely another point I made, which was if we made things last longer there would be less refuse material in the first place.

Methane can be collected and processed by the way.
This is entirely separate from the bureaucratic kneejerk that prompted the cows in nappies jokes around the planet.

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Studiot, it's not that I think reducing the packaging isn't a better option, just that I think it's a less achievable option. Just as making things that last is less achievable. It seems to me the degree of change within manufacturing, food distribution and retailing to achieve those better outcomes involves a greater degree of regulatory intervention; the potential for retailers to raise the PR profile of their businesses by adopting different packaging is greater than the potential for getting the major retail chains, that like the way pre-packaging streamlines things, to greatly reduce packaging.

I still think you are missing a lot of what I have been saying. I did mention methane utilisation, more than once. But that it's far from universal - as a source of atmospheric methane it is not from the landfill that utilises it but the landfill that doesn't; it probaly will increase in use but I think it is better that the food waste not be incorporated into the landfill to make landfill a methane source. Which I think is greatly impacted by ease of separation; if the past-it's-use stuff can just be thrown into a bin for biorecyclables, without needing to be unpacked, less of it will go by default into the bin for landfill. Deplore the waste all we like; it's a fact to be dealt with. Also think that civil engineering projects, like flood mitigation, as a secondary use for landfill can be done even better if that biological material - and toxic material content - were reduced. If such projects have a sound basis they ought not be reliant upon landfill to get done.

Edited by Ken Fabian

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