Vegware's Eilidh Brunton: 'Compostable packaging has gone from nice to mainstream'

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Vegware group recycling consultant Eilidh Brunton

Everyone was touched one way or another by the ‘Attenborough effect’, following the broadcast of BBC’s Blue Planet II, but few more so than Edinburgh-based compostable packaging manufacturers Vegware.

Many on-the-go retailers are now switching to the brand’s range of products in a bid to alleviate their single-use conscience, as companies vouch to become more environmentally friendly.

Vegware’s group recycling consultant Eilidh Brunton has been at the forefront of this rapid switchover, which has seen the business grow exponentially since it was first established back 2006.

Yet the flourishing compostable market and its environmental virtues have come under question by the waste industry after concerns that compostables add complications to the waste stream and do little to reduce plastic pollution.

“This year has seen growth that no-one could have forecast for, the demand has been so crazy and there has been a lot of growing pains,” Brunton says.

“Back in the early days most of our business went to smaller independent cafés and coffee shops who had a bit of a conscious. But since then, we’ve really seen it grow into the mainstream and it’s not a niche product any more.”

Vegware’s wide range of products includes coffee cups, on-the-go food packaging and cutlery and are all made from a variety of plant-based materials, dependent on the needs of the packaging.

Leftover fibre from the sugarcane industry is used for takeaway boxes – one of the main culprits of litter and pollution. Bioplastics made from plant sugars and palm leaf products are also used across Vegware’s portfolio. Despite concerns over land use for this type of material, Brunton insists the available agricultural land used to grow these crops is minimal.

Vegware originally developed its brand as an alternative to oil-based plastics, yet it is now refocusing on the compostable element which, when taken to an anaerobic digester or windrow composter, can biodegrade.

This has seen the brand expand across the globe to have bases in California, Sydney and Hong Kong, with its products now available in many high street retailers, independent cafés and closed environments such as hospitals and stadiums.

In September, the products even made their way to Parliament after a new contract was signed to replace single-use plastic items in its canteens and restaurants.

To compost?

Yet the compostable element can create confusion, with consumers wrongly believing the products will degrade if placed in an ordinary refuse bin.

For the products to live up to their environmental claims, they need to end up in the food waste collection system. Due to varying collection services across the country, this isn’t always achievable, something Brunton has long battled with.

She says: “The composting facilities are here but the collections aren’t. There isn’t always the commercial route, so that’s where we’ve been working hard to grow those routes and engage with the waste sector. We want them to understand that packaging is a viable material and there is a demand for it.

“Six or seven years ago I continuously had the phone put down on me by waste management companies asking what on earth I was talking about. I was an insignificant little composting company and they didn’t want to know, whereas now we are inundated with phone calls every day from waste companies asking how to deal with the product.”

Vegware has made a significant investment in certification and trials to build trust in the brand and now all products are certified to relevant standards. But how does the brand navigate its responsibility to ensure its customers understand the limitations of the product?

A customer may think they are preventing marine pollution by using a Vegware product, but if it doesn’t end up in the correct stream, it is just as likely to leak into the ocean where it will not degrade.

“Lots of our products are labelled commercially compostable to avoid misleading people to believe they are just thrown away. We do a lot of education and have an in-house environmental team who help customers with products at the end-of-life aspect, working with them to get the right waste collection set up and label products correctly,” Brunton says.

The company has successfully launched a composting collection service across Scotland which collects used Vegware takeaway packaging and takes it to a composter. This is now being spread out to Bristol, Gloucester and Worcester, with bring-back schemes encouraging customers to dispose of their Vegware products correctly.

She adds: “We are trying to bridge the gap in regions where there’s not an existing commercial collection for composting but we have a relationship with a facility that will take the product. It’s all a bit chicken and egg – we’ve got to have material out there to create a viable route to collect it, and Vegware needs the route to sell the product.”

Reducing plastic pollution is many in the industry’s (and now the public’s) noble goal. But should we be focusing on a model that encourages disposal rather than reuse? The problem, Brunton says, is much more complex.

“The reality is that we’re a long way off from getting rid of all disposables. We do work with a lot of sites where they have introduced reusable cups but still have a requirement for disposable.

“The approach we’re taking with our composting collective is to encourage café owners to use their producer responsibility and offer these bring-back schemes. We know that’s on-the-go and we will need to target it eventually, but we’re a little while off that so we’re plugging in where we can for now.”

Few local authorities currently accept Vegware in their general food waste collections, but thanks to the many years of effort Brunton and her team have spent building up partnerships, this is beginning to change.

Currently, Vegware is focusing on businesses to prove its concept works in closed environments and working with commercial waste collectors who will service it. Brunton’s relationship with the waste industry hasn’t come easy.

“One of the largest obstacles is seeing that quite often there are a lot of waste companies that don’t always focus on doing the best thing for the environment and are more focused on what specific facilities they have, so we would like to see the sector being more environmentally friendly.

“For example, they say we don’t compost but can incinerate, yet there is a facility that is closer. I’d like to see them sort their business model and become more flexible.”

As for Brunton’s Christmas wishes, she’d like to see mandatory food waste collections introduced for England. She says: “It’s something we have had in Scotland for quite a number of years now and is really the way forward for all householders and businesses to segregate food waste for recycling, which in turn has led to increase in infrastructure and facilities for processing that material. It leads to more organic resource in order to maintain and improve soil health in the UK.”

The debate surrounding compostables is far from over, but with many more stakeholders engaged in discussions, it can only mean good things for the environment and resources industry that we have reached a point where it exists.

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