When considering the likelihood of recycling versus waste going to landfill, is plastic, paper or compostable packaging better for the environment? Taronga Zoo recently posed this question to Edge Environment and the resulting life-cycle assessment (LCA) yielded surprising results.
Earlier this year, Australian news outlets burst a bubble: our fondness for takeaway coffee has become an environmental burden.
Imagine the collective whine across the nation: “Not the coffee, too!”
It seems like everything these days is bad for the environment, right? Plastics kill fish, pesticides kill bees, cosmetics and cookies kill orangutans, cars, planes and trucks are stinking up the environment and our health… even our sporty fleece jackets, when washed, shed tonnes and tonnes of tiny particles that are ending up in the oceans doing goodness knows what.
Some people might say that no matter what we do, we’re always going to be in the wrong, so we might as well do whatever we want and blissfully wash our hands of caring.
The other way to look at it is that the reason why everything these days seems to be a problem is because we care and because we bother. Since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring awakened a collective environmental consciousness in the 1960s, we’ve become more aware and involved in detecting and preventing environmental damage.
But back to coffee
It is estimated that Australians use 1 billion disposable coffee cups each year. 1 billion cups are used once and then become waste.
The same problem extends to all kinds of food and beverage containers: it’s not only about coffee, but also tacos, fish and chips, sandwiches, sushi, ice-cream… Hence, the magnitude of the problem is much bigger than 1 billion cups. It isn’t known for sure what happens to that waste, but it’s estimated that 90% ends up in landfill. This statistic has led entire countries to ban plastic food containers, and some cities and communities want to ban bottled water, too.
What’s the alternative, then? One proposed alternative is compostable packaging, such as biopolymers and bamboo. The premise is convenient: they’re made from plants, which sequester CO2, and after using them we can throw them in a worm farm or bury them in our yard and after a while they just turn into soil nutrition.
Does this solve our problem?
This is the question Taronga Zoo asked Edge Environment.
Taronga switched to serving food and beverages in compostable packaging at their events, such as the Twilight concerts. However, they’ve had trouble getting people to separate the waste. At the end of the day, when everybody’s rushing to the ferry, the stubbies and the compostable sushi tray mingle in the same bin.
Edge used LCA and its sustainable procurement expertise to provide Taronga with the best solution. LCA allowed the company to compare, from cradle to grave, the environmental impact of compostable packaging versus plastic and paper packaging.
It may surprise some that if all the waste ends up in landfill, plastic packaging is preferable to paper or compostable — as organic products, the latter release methane when decomposing slowly and without oxygen, resulting in a higher carbon footprint.
But the picture changes completely when the packaging waste is separated at source. Paper becomes a better alternative if at least 46% of paper packaging gets recycled. For compostable packaging to be the more environmentally friendly alternative in comparison to plastic, at least 75% of the compostable packaging needs to be composted rather than landfilled.
So what can Taronga Zoo do?
Edge’s recommendation, for Taronga and any organisation with similar dilemmas, starts with establishing procurement guidelines that are science based. This will ensure that supply chain decisions are guided towards minimal-impact operations, not only for material purchases but also waste management services.
This recommendation is echoed by Emma Bombonato, Sustainability Manager of the Taronga Conservation Society. “It’s so important when investigating new products to understand their full life cycle impact. This will help you make the best decision about whether changing is the right decision for your business and the environment.”
Simultaneously, Taronga should use its position as a conservation organisation to educate visitors and stakeholders about the relevance of minding our waste.