Biodegradable bags: Is this the start of a whole new industry?

Written by: RWW | Published:

A governmental aim to incentivise greater use of biodegradable bags appears to have slipped under the radar. David Burrows initiates the debate and asks ‘Could this be the start of a new debate?’

Did you know that if you Google “Plastic bags Defra”, the top listing takes you back to the (old) Defra website and 2003; the year in which the UK joined the US to invade Iraq, Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club and Channel 4’s Brookside finished after 21 years on TV. It seems a long time ago, doesn’t it? 

And yet we’ve been talking about how to curb plastic bag use for much, much longer. 

So long, in fact, that even Nick Clegg, the man who was (finally) given the chance to announce that England will introduce a levy on carrier bags, seemed a little exasperated by the whole affair. “We’ve waited too long for action,” the deputy prime minister said, “that’s why I am drawing a line under the issue now.”

Phew. 

With around 29 million tonnes of household waste generated in the UK every year, it’s good to know that after more than a decade of to-ing and fro-ing there will now be a policy aimed at reducing a waste stream that comprises under 1% of that total.

But I don’t want to talk about the pros and cons of the bag tax. It’s coming (though perhaps not in time for Autumn 2015 as intended); it’ll be 5p (with the proceeds likely to go to charity) and it’ll (quite probably) reduce bag use at similarly impressive rates to those seen in Northern Ireland and Wales. 

No, what I want to talk about is the paragraph at the bottom of Defra’s press release. The one that reads: “The government will also incentivise biodegradable bags. A new high standard for these products will
be developed with manufacturers. Bags which meet the standard will be exempt from the charge.”

Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, followed this up at the conservative party conference with: “Any bags complying with this new standard could be given out by retailers for free or at a lower cost, reducing their environmental impact and incentivising a whole new industry.”

Do you sense the start of a protracted debate about standards for biodegradable bags? 

Maybe. There’s two years until the bag tax comes into force, so let’s kick the debate off.

First compostable bags

One of the first compostable bags was launched in 2006 by Ikea which sold it for 10p. The Co-operative has since introduced its own compostable bags, charging 6p - about half the price of a conventional caddy liner so the bags can be used to carry shopping home and then in people’s kitchen caddies. 

But the idea hasn’t really taken off. 

“I think Ikea was perhaps too soon - council food waste collections were still in their infancy [back then],” admits Eilidh Brunton, business development executive at the Food Waste Network. “The Co-operative has seen good uptake [of their bags], particularly in areas where councils have promoted their use.” Brunton is a fan of the concept of compostable bags, given their dual use for consumers: “This splits the carbon footprint of the compostable carrier bags” but there is another advantage, she explains. “Being so visible to thousands of consumers makes [compostable bags] an ideal place for messages promoting food waste recycling. Polyethylene bags contaminated with food waste generally go to landfill or incineration, whereas a compostable bag used for food has a recycling route. 

“This respects the waste hierarchy and also allows organics facilities and local authorities to minimise waste in their own processes.”

Others are not so sure the bags will be a welcome sight for those running anaerobic digestion (AD) plants. 

“Do we really want bags that degrade going to treatment and disposal sites?” asks Adam Read, practice director for waste management and resource efficiency at consultants Ricardo-AEA. “I thought the EU Landfill Directive was all about reducing biodegradable content going to landfills. Just how many of our current crop of AD plants really want these bags as their feedstock? Not many, I suspect, as most aren’t that keen on starch corn bin liners either.”

Read says that concerns regarding quality, the abundance of other forms of plastic bags and the introduction of ‘bags for life’ schemes have all diluted the impact of biodegradable bags. 

He adds: “On the whole they have only really had traction as part of the food waste collection service on offer to many households where they are a liner for the kitchen caddy, but only where the AD plant can cope with them. There hasn’t been a market for them; the public don’t want them.” 

Indeed, the policy shift that is taking place to promote the use of biodegradable bags as part of the plastic bag levy, makes Read uneasy. 

“They degrade quicker, and are potentially a viable way of moving organic material from source to an AD or compost facility. But the push for biodegradable plastic bags worries me,” he says. 

“I see a problem around user confusion and likely contamination within the recycling stream between the biodegradable and non-biodegradable options. 

“So is the government going to support the infrastructure needed to collect and treat these bags? I haven’t heard anything on the downstream management issues, and this worries me.”

Collection confusion

It isn’t yet clear whether the Scottish government, which recently confirmed it will introduce a plastic bag charge next year, will be pushing biodegradable bags in the same way as the English. 

In Wales, the government sees a “general misconception” about degradable bags. It’s website states: “They don’t fully break down and are made from plastic taken from non-renewable fossil fuels. There is some evidence to suggest that plastic oxy-degradable bags that claim to be biodegradable may be misleading.”

Jakob Rindegren, recycling policy advisor at the Environmental Services Association, explains how the confusion can arise: “There are generally two types of degradable bags; degradable PE carrier bags [sometimes referred to as oxo-biodegradable] and biodegradable carrier bags. An important issue with both is that they only degrade in specific conditions. 

“The biodegradable bags need aerated composting, either through home or industrial composting, and cannot degrade in landfills. They therefore need to be separated out and used for food waste collections or [perhaps] collected by retailers.” Although supportive of the policy to promote biodegradable bags, “or more specifically compostable bags”, Brunton questions the need for a new standard. 

For compostability there are already certification schemes that ensure products comply with the standard EN1342. 

“Rather than creating a new standard, the government should ensure that only bags certified ‘compostable’ under a recognised scheme are exempt from the charge,” she says, adding: “Promoting compostable bags as an alternative is definitely important and goes hand-in-hand with reducing plastic bag use. 

“While carrier bag charging is a proven way of reducing plastic carrier bag use and encouraging use of reusable bags, the reality is that consumers won’t remember to bring bags with them every time. In these situations, having a compostable option as an alternative can help reduce plastic bag use even further.” 

Added to which Read and Rindegren are both concerned with collection confusion. 

There are similar issues even when it comes to plastic bags, which often find their way into plastic streams when they are not wanted, creating problems for the sorting equipment at materials recovery facilities. 

Read, for one, hopes the government doesn’t pursue the policy: “At least not until we know the majority of AD plants can
cope, and only when local authorities are in favour of collecting them and require residents to use them when putting out their food waste. I would rather they stop and rethink this issue.”

Well, there are 24 months in which to do just that.


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