Understanding how your business can be more environmentally friendly can be difficult. We have put together some frequently asked questions to help you make the best choices, both for your business and the environment.

What is sustainable packaging?

Sustainable packaging is the development and use of packaging which results in improved sustainability. This involves increased use of life cycle inventory and life cycle assessment to help guide the use of packaging that reduces the environmental impact and ecological footprint. The goal is to improve long-term viability and quality of life for humans, and the longevity of natural ecosystems. Sustainable packaging must be functional, cost effective, and supportive to long-term human and ecological health.


Why do environmentally friendly products often cost more?

This is predominantly due to the cost of the raw materials used to manufacture these products. As these materials are not as widely produced, the economies of scale that we see on other common materials are not possible to achieve. Twinned with the costs for some suppliers of applying for various environmental certificates and accreditations, the overall costs of producing environmentally friendly products is much higher than standard products.


What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable?

Biodegradable and compostable can be confusing terms, as technically both words define the same process. Biodegradation is a natural process that converts organic matter into carbon dioxide (or methane), biomass and water vapour. All life forms on earth depend upon biodegradation in some form to sustain life or remove waste. However, biodegradation only occurs when the correct conditions are in place: sufficient moisture and sufficient heat. If the environment is too cold, organic matter will not decompose.

Commercial composting is an accelerated, managed form of biodegradation. Air-borne (aerobic) microbes are placed into a controlled environment designed to maximize the speed at which they decompose organic matter. Rather than degrading to carbon dioxide, methane or water vapour, compostable products will break down into compost or soil – but only if processed in a commercial composting facility.


Can biodegradable and compostable products go into normal waste bins?

Biodegradable or compostable waste will not break down correctly if placed into a normal waste bin. This is because waste from a normal bin will end up in landfill where there is insufficient heat, moisture and light for the waste to degrade correctly. To ensure biodegradable and compostable products are broken down as intended they must be sent to a commercial composting facility. Unfortunately, commercial composting facilities are limited in the UK, with only one in England and two in Scotland.


What happens to compostable products in landfill?

Compostable items are designed to be broken down in a composting facility only. If sent to landfill they will degrade very slowly, if at all, and any degradation that occurs in such an uncontrolled environment will result in methane being released to the atmosphere. Composting is a very specific process that does not occur in landfill. Microorganisms, carbon, water, oxygen and nitrogen are all essential parts of the composting process and these factors need to be present in the right circumstances (such as in a compost pile) for composting to occur. If compostable products are placed in common anaerobic (air-locked or capped) landfills and deprived of oxygen and micro-organisms, then the ability of the compostable products to decompose will be severely restricted. This is true of all biodegradable materials placed in this setting, including paper, garden waste and food waste. Ideally, any compostable products should be put into commercial composting so that it can meet the EN13432 regulations.


Are paper cups recyclable?

Paper cups are typically manufactured using paper lined with polyethylene (PE) to ensure that they are waterproof, preventing liquid from leaking out or soaking through the paper. Paper cups are generally manufactured using virgin material in order to meet hygiene standards. Recycled fibre can be more readily used for elements of the cup that do not come into contact with the beverage – for example, an extra insulating layer for heat retention such as a double wall. However, the incorporation of recycled fibre on the outer of the cup can reduce the value of the used product for reprocessors seeking virgin fibres only.

To complement the current solutions offered by specialist fibre reprocessing facilities, Simply Cups has been investigating alternative options to recover resource from used paper cups. As a result, we now have the ability to compound used paper cups into new polymers without the need to separate the paper from the plastic lining. See www.simplycups.co.uk for more information.


Which is the most environmentally friendly choice – biodegradable, compostable or recyclable?

The answer to this question will depend on your local commercial waste arrangements. Biodegradable and compostable cups are a good idea in theory, but more often than not they still end up in landfill after being disposed of in a general waste bin. Here, these products are very unlikely to break down, as once they are buried they will not receive the required level of water, light or temperature for the biodegradation process to take place. Currently, there are very few commercial composting sites in the UK, and these are the only places where actual composting is guaranteed to take place under the correct conditions. In addition, biodegradable and compostable options are almost always more expensive due to the materials used to create them. Therefore, the most sustainable packaging option overall (depending on your local waste collection services) is likely to be recyclable rather than the biodegradable or compostable options.