Innovate Blog
Compostable v recyclable food packaging

Tuesday November 8, 2016

Ask the Expert: Jo Gilroy (Head of Sustainability).

We asked our Sustainability expert ‘Which option is more sustainable – compostable packaging or recyclable packaging?’

And here’s what she told us…


A question I’m frequently asked and one which really does divide opinion, is ‘which option is more sustainable – compostable packaging or recyclable packaging?

Operators who use disposable packaging to serve customers, whether they are a national high street brand or a small independent owner operator want a simple, one-size-fits-all sustainable solution, which is also cost effective.  Both compostable and recyclable packaging present sustainable solutions with environmental merits, but neither of them is a one-size-fits-all solution for the implications of our grab and go culture.

The best, or most sustainable option, totally depends on the operating context of the business, or the environment within which the material will be disposed of.  What is vital is that the packaging used matches the disposal routes available, so that compostable packaging is actually composted and recyclable packaging is actually recycled.  It is true that both compostable and recyclable packaging have ‘front end’ benefits, the former being made from renewable resources and the latter often containing recycled content.  However, what it of utmost importance is that each is disposed of correctly at their end of life, otherwise the environmental benefit has been significantly reduced.  Below are three key tips to help you make a more informed choice:

#Tip 1:  Choose environmentally responsible packaging which matches your in-house disposal facilities, a food waste bin for compostables and a mixed recycling bin for recyclables.

#Tip 2:  Choose environmentally responsible packaging which matches the end of life facilities your waste management provider has access to in your area.  Recyclables should be sent either directly to a recycler, or to a Materials Recycling Facility for sorting.  Compostables should be sent to an In-Vessel Composter or an Anaerobic Digestion facility with the necessary pre-treatment packaging process.

#Tip 3:  Minimise contamination through clearly labelled bins and well placed signs.  The only material which should go in your food waste bin is food and compostable packaging.  For your recyclables, it is important to limit the amount contamination from food or non-recyclable material.

An excellent example of where the dots have been joined between the packaging material type and available disposal facilities with great effect is the Hubbub Manchester City Centre Cup Trial.  Hubbub, along with support from major high street chains, has launched an innovative coffee cup recycling trial.  By establishing the correct disposal method to deal with the average high street coffee cup capable of being recycled, Hubbub are giving all collected cups a second life by recycling them into gardening equipment, donated to local community gardens.  They are making visible both the environmental and social value which can be created by joining the dots.