The surge in eco-consciousness regarding non-recycled plastic waste has led to the emergence of alternative “sustainable” options that mimic traditional plastic but can be composted at the end of their life cycle, contributing to waste reduction.

While the concept appears promising, its practical implementation is more complex, with a growing realization that the improper use of compostable plastic packaging may have unintended consequences. Like any novel packaging material, the adoption of compostable plastics necessitates careful consideration.

Our latest blog post on sustainable packaging design aims to shed light on the discourse surrounding compostable plastics and provide guidance for manufacturers exploring innovative packaging solutions.

In this blog, we engage in a conversation with Dr. Adam Read, Director of External Affairs at SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK Ltd and President of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, and Steve Thomas, Associate Director – Applied Science at Cambridge Consultants, to delve into the challenges and possibilities associated with compostable plastics.

What do we mean by compostable plastics?

What's the difference graphic

The challenge of compostable plastics

A key issue associated with compostable plastic pertains to disposal. If consumers mistakenly discard a compostable plastic container into a recycling bin, it can contaminate the recyclable waste in its vicinity.

According to Dr. Adam Read, Director of External Affairs at SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK Ltd, waste recovery and recycling systems have been developed to handle commonly used packaging materials. Introducing new materials without considering existing systems and their adaptability can pose challenges, introducing contaminants into the mixed recycling stream.

“Materials recovery facilities are designed to segregate and handle materials that are commonly used and valued for recycling, such as PET, aluminium, steel, glass, and card,” explains Read. “Introducing new materials may disrupt the expected flow or hinder the system’s ability to capture existing target materials.”

Current systems typically identify different materials based on color and density. Therefore, if a compostable plastic bottle closely resembles a traditional PET bottle, the recycling system might mistakenly categorize it as PET, according to Read.

Even a small amount of compostable material can contaminate standard plastic recycling streams, resulting in the wastage of significant quantities of recyclable material. In response to these challenges, WRAP published guidance materials in January 2020 to assist businesses in making informed decisions about using compostable packaging.

Helen Bird, Resource Management Specialist at WRAP, emphasizes the importance of businesses understanding when it is viable to use compostable plastics, considering the complexities of the current treatment infrastructure. She stresses the need for clear instructions to prevent people from placing compostable plastics in recycling bins and compromising end markets for recycled plastics.

What should be compostable?

According to Steve Thomas, Associate Director – Applied Science at Cambridge Consultants, the key to effectively using compostables lies in identifying areas where the collection and recycling of single-use plastics pose challenges. It is crucial to target situations where it makes sense for consumers to dispose of items in a food waste bin.

“When designing a product, it’s essential to consider how consumers are expected to dispose of it at the end of its life,” Thomas emphasizes. Designing items like PET bottles to be compostable doesn’t align with consumer behavior, as they naturally tend to place these in recycling, which is not suitable for compostable plastics.

On the other hand, items that are hard to recycle and heavily contaminated with food currently lack an ideal waste stream for disposal. Such items can create problems in traditional recycling streams and contribute to methane emissions when subjected to anaerobic breakdown in landfills.

The second point is particularly crucial in discussions about compostables, as methane emissions from landfills significantly contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions. Governments worldwide are committing to the introduction of mandatory household food waste collections to address this issue.

Upcoming regulations include:

The European Directive (EU) 2018/851, effective from January 1, 2024, mandates the implementation of separate food waste collection within the EU. In alignment with this, the UK Government’s Resources and Waste Strategy commits to introducing separate collections for household food waste in the UK by 2023.

These forthcoming regulations create a significant opportunity for compostable plastic packaging when utilized strategically. The following sections highlight specific scenarios in which businesses may find it appropriate to consider the use of compostable plastics to support the collection of additional food waste.

1. Heavily soiled pots, tubs, and trays

One prevalent scenario where compostable packaging could prove valuable is in food contact packaging, particularly in cases where the product is extensively soiled by food waste and challenging for consumers to clean, such as microwavable ready meal trays.

“There is a current challenge with the disposal of these items,” notes Thomas. “If a consumer places them in the recycling, there’s a risk of contaminating other recyclables, or they need to be thoroughly washed, requiring significant energy and water usage. As a result, they are often directed to landfill.”

In contrast, a compostable microwavable tray could be disposed of in a food waste bin, especially in areas with industrial composting facilities, or, depending on the material, in a home composter. Any residual food in the tray would then transform into compost rather than contributing to food waste sent to landfill. This approach would also diminish the quantity of trays destined for landfill and enhance the recyclables’ quality by preventing contaminated products from entering recycling bins.

Ready meal packaging

2. Flexible food contact packaging

Flexible plastic wrap is a common feature in various food and beverage applications, including single-serve condiment sachets, prepacked salads, and convenience pouches. However, recycling these materials poses challenges.

“Films are a significant issue for the sector at the moment,” notes Read. “They adhere to surfaces and entangle with other recyclables. While there are recycling systems in the UK that can handle films, they are more costly as a result. Unfortunately, most recycling systems are not designed for them, as many local authorities have not traditionally collected them.”

Compostable plastics could offer a solution, particularly in instances where products are contaminated with food, such as single-serve sachets. In such cases, compostable packaging and any remaining contents could be jointly disposed of in a food waste bin for collection and treatment.

Tomatoes in flexi wrap

3. Items destined for the compost pile

Certain items, like tea bags and fruit and vegetable stickers, often end up in home compost or organic waste collection, despite containing traditional non-compostable plastic. Consumers may mistakenly assume these items are entirely compostable. Switching to compostable alternatives in these cases makes sense, as it can enhance the quality of the final compost. WRAP specifically highlights teabags as an area where compostable plastic packaging should always replace traditional plastics because they are frequently placed in organic waste collections. Another notable application is coffee pods, where using a compostable alternative would enable both the pod and coffee grounds to be composted together after use, reducing the number of pods sent to landfill and preventing unrecyclable, coffee-contaminated pods from entering recycling bins.

Plastic coffee pods

Get the labelling right

It is crucial to prioritize consumer awareness regarding the proper disposal methods when contemplating the utilization of compostable plastic solutions. Manufacturers employing compostable plastics should implement clear labeling on all items to mitigate the risk of inappropriate disposal, which could lead to contamination of the natural environment or conventional plastic recycling systems. Regional variations in recycling systems should also be taken into account. For instance, when employing industrially compostable materials, brands should offer guidance on disposing of items in areas where industrial composting facilities are unavailable.

WRAP advises that manufacturers should consider labelling which advises consumers on how items should be disposed of, rather than using statements, such as ‘100% compostable’, without disposal information. A list of recommended statements is available from WRAP’s Considerations for Compostable Plastic Packaging.

In scenarios where packaging space is limited, details can be incorporated into a 2D code, such as a QR or Data Matrix code, enabling consumers to access information effortlessly through a smartphone or tablet. The advantage of employing a 2D code in such applications lies in the brand’s ability to furnish a substantial amount of information without constraints.

By employing standards like GS1 Digital Link, this process could be elevated to identify a consumer’s location and offer personalized information according to their local recycling capabilities. This may include linking to the nearest available recycling point.

Codico is here to help

Compostable materials represent an exciting advancement in the packaging industry. However, as with any transition in materials, the adoption of compostable packaging demands careful consideration.

As a frontrunner in coding and marking, we are actively guiding and assisting customers on their sustainability journey to mitigate potential risks associated with sustainable design. Our dedicated in-house research and development teams are steadfast in creating laser and ink coding solutions tailored for various new packaging materials, including compostable options, and enhanced recyclable plastics.

If you are contemplating a shift to compostable materials and wish to explore the diverse coding and marking solutions suitable for your specific requirements, feel free to reach out. Our experts are ready to provide insights on how to manufacture products that align with retailer expectations, resonate with consumers, and instill trust among those with environmental concerns.


Want To Learn More?

[i] WRAP, Considerations for Compostable Plastic Packaging, 2020, accessed 22nd November 2021,

[ii] WRAP, New guidance to address confusion of compostable plastic packaging, access 14th December 2021,

[iii] WRAP, Considerations for Compostable Plastic Packaging, 2020, accessed 22nd November 2021,
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