Guardian switches to compostable wrappers

The Guardian has become the first national newspaper to be delivered in a compostable wrapper.

The Weekend magazine and other supplements coming with the Saturday edition of the Guardian will now be packaged in a compostable wrapper derived from potato starch, as part of the paper’s commitment to reducing its reliance on plastic.

The Guardian stated that the change will increase production costs, but that feedback from readers has made the decision clear. The new wrapping has so far only been introduced in London, Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, but will be rolled out across the entire country.

Instructions for disposal on a compostable wrapper
A compostable wrapper similar to those used by the Guardian
The material used will break down in both industrial composting plants and garden compost heaps; it should not be placed in normal recycling bins or taken to plastic bag recycling points. 

Advice printed on the new compostable wrapping states that it can be disposed of in a well-maintained home compost heap, a garden waste bin or a food waste bin. However, this advice may not be relevant for every reader, as not all councils accept biodegradable or compostable plastics in their food waste bins.

In fact, only councils whose food waste is processed at an industrial composting plant will be able to accept the wrappers in food bins. Many councils send their food waste for anaerobic digestion (AD), which sees the waste processed in the absence of oxygen – compostable materials need oxygen to break down.

Therefore, those materials entering a food waste stream destined for AD will need to be mechanically removed before treatment – they might then be sent for composting separately, but they can also be disposed of as general waste, possibly going into landfill or to incineration. While some councils using AD do allow compostable bags as liners, many will not accept compostable materials at all.

Many readers have headed to social media to question how exactly they should dispose of the Guardian’s new wrappers. Islington Council responded to one question on Twitter, saying that ‘although the wrapping is compostable, it cannot easily be distinguished and separated from other plastic items, so it should not be put in with your food waste. If you cannot compost these at home, they should go in the rubbish bin.’

Harry Waters, Commercial Director at Agrivert, which recently sold its five AD plants to Severn Trent Green Power, told Resource that compostable materials can create issues for AD operators. He said: “The problem with almost all compostable materials is that they do not degrade in digestion. Most plants are set up to remove all contamination prior to digestion to make sure we can produce a clean product. This results in almost all packaging designed for food waste being extracted if put through the AD process regardless if it is degradable or not.”

He explained that this packaging material is usually sent to a waste incinerator to be turned into refuse-derived fuel (RDF).

“[There are] a number of issues if the public are using biodegradable packaging. Firstly, the public may be wrongly under the impression that the packaging is being digested when in fact it is being burnt. Secondly, the public are probably paying up to five times more for biodegradable packaging, and lastly biodegradable packaging tends to be heavier that traditional alternatives.”

Waters suggested that government intervention is needed over piecemeal solutions by individual organisations. “Ideally we need government to intervene. All plastic or all degradable packaging would be easier for most processors to design systems for. Half and half solves nothing, confuses the public and is costly.”

With the appetite for action on plastics at an all-time high, companies are moving to make changes while government lags behind. However, organisations need to take the time to think clearly about the end-of-life options for their plastic alternatives. It is possible the advice on the Guardian’s new packaging could create additional confusion for readers, as well as potential difficulties for local authorities and food waste processors.

The Guardian has been approached for comment.

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