To Compost or Not To Compost?

In his latest book “Elegant Simplicity”, Satish Kumar, founder of the Schumacher College in Dartington, makes some compelling observations; one is particularly notable in the context of Waste and how society views it. He argues that

“in Nature there is no waste. Nature moves in cycles. The seasons move in cycles, the Earth moves in a cycle, everything in Nature is cyclical”

For too long, he suggests, economists have favoured the linear economy where the Earth’s natural resources have been exploited, used, and then thrown into landfill or incinerated. It is now time to call a halt to this process and support the circular economy where waste is kept to a minimum, and the waste that is generated is re-purposed or recycled in line with the laws of Nature.

One of the most wonderful examples of recycling waste material into a highly beneficial product is composting – producing a resource which nourishes the soil and helps lower our carbon footprint. Many residents will be blessed with gardens and space for different composting facilities, which, if correctly managed, can produce excellent compost (I favour the Green Johanna which is currently available at a subsidized price from Cornwall Council)

Green Johanna

Many will also know how a mixture of “browns” and “greens” creates the ideal diet for a garden composting receptacle or heap. On the face of it this is a straightforward process. Greens can include green sappy materials like some grass cuttings, vegetable peelings and old flowers/nettles, while “Browns” will see egg boxes, kitchen roll tubes, light prunings, shredded natural fibres added to the mix on a 50/50 basis, avoiding certain things like diseased plants, dog
or cat poo, perennial weeds or those with seed heads. Then giving it a good stir or turn over from time to time to allow air to circulate. There is plenty of detailed advice to be found on the internet about good composting practice, and composters available on the market. The Green Johanna, being virtually vermin-free, will take most food waste, unlike other cheaper varieties where, for example, cooked food waste should be avoided.

But, the advent of our single-use packaging society has created something of a compostable minefield, often leaving consumers bewildered by products labelled “compostable” or “biodegradable”, and whether or not they contain plastic. Two examples feature prominently in the hierarchy of confusion: the Tea Bag and the Single-Use Coffee Cup.

Is there plastic in your tea (bag)?

You might think tea bags are just simply paper and tea, and that they will decompose easily in your compost bin, but beware! Many tea bags we buy contain polypropylene (PP) which is used to seal the bags which make them non-recyclable and non-compostable; others have mesh which are fiendishly difficult to split open, which suggests additional plastic content; others, which claim to be “biodegradable”, will only break down at temperatures only found in industrial composters (of which we have none locally)… and so the confusion mounts up.

It is estimated over 90% of tea bags have plastic in them, but some good news is that companies who make these bags are gradually responding to public concern, with articles appearing regularly on the internet listing the growing number of tea bags which can be composted with confidence (just search for “plastic in your tea”)

The same confusion arises over the disposal of single-use coffee cups

Some of these are labelled “compostable” because they are made of plant-based/bioplastic material, but they will also only breakdown in industrial composting conditions, which rules them out for home composting… and we also have no systems currently available for their collection or sustainable disposal. Most other cups are made with plastic-coated paper. They can be recycled (not composted), mostly at the Recycling Centres, along with drinks cartons, although some leading coffee chains like Costa Coffee will take them back for recycling. The only easy-to-recycle single-use cup, which arrived on the market just recently, appears to be made by Frugalpac, which, they say, can be included domestic paper recycling collections.

It’s estimated that only 1 in 400 cups and lids are actually recycled or composted correctly, and putting compostable cups into recycling bins will see many ending up in landfill or being incinerated because of contamination. Before the lockdown, Britain was getting through 2.5 billion of these cups annually, with a massive carbon, energy and water footprint. These cups have been called an “ecological disaster” in some reports.

The current pandemic may well put a halt to the use of many single-use takeaway cups, which could see an overall drop in their manufacture and use. But when lockdown restrictions are eased, the consumption of takeaway coffee and tea could well return to pre-pandemic levels.

(N.B. at the time of writing there are reports of trials of used single-use compostable coffee cups taking place under industrial composting conditions in West Cornwall – watch this space for further developments)

Single-use tea bags and single-use cups, are not the only items causing a headache. “Compostable” crisp packets, “degradable” carrier bags, “compostable” mailing wrappers, and “compostable” toothbrushes also add to the confusion. This problem was recognised by the EFRA Parliamentary Committee in their report on Plastic Food and Drink Packaging last September, whose Chairman observed

“my committee is also concerned that compostable plastics have been introduced without the right infrastructure or consumer understanding about how to dispose of them. Fundamentally, substitution is not the answer, and we need to look at ways to cut down on single use packaging”.

How true! Perhaps now is the time to avoid those products which are making our lives unnecessarily complicated, and asking questions of those who make the rules. Why is the onus put on the consumer to make difficult decisions about recycling and composting? Where is the clear labelling and uniform guidance to help us make informed choices in order to reduce contamination? When will the circular economy be put firmly at the centre of all decision-making, thus reducing unnecessary waste and pollution?

In amongst the confusion and dilemmas caused by the above, and the pandemic, a clear message is emerging. Nature is reminding us how much we rely on the environment for our well-being and sustenance. Health, Climate and Nature are all interdependent,and we need to respect and protect the natural world. Composting is, in essence, a simple and straightforward act, helping protect and nurture the soil on which we all depend for our survival.

So, maybe it’s a good time to follow the advice of Satish Kumar and exercise some “elegant simplicity”.

If you have a composter, keep to the tried and tested ingredients that guarantees contamination-free compost.

Avoid confusing “compostable” and “biodegradable” labelled products, unless you are absolutely certain about their composting credentials.

Make a home brew using a teapot or infuser, or coffee pot, where the tea leaves and coffee grounds can be safely added to the mix.

If you don’t have a composter maybe think of ordering one. If space is a problem, and you would like to recycle your unwanted food waste, Cornwall Council plans to introduce a kerbside collection next year (more on that topic in a future article).

So, when it’s safe to be out and about and you fancy a hot drink on-the-go, have a reusable cup handy for refilling, instead of using single-use takeaway cups. Or invest in a reusable flask which can keep drinks hot for 12 hours. It’s worth noting that, according to the latest Greenpeace report (22nd June), using reusable cups has the nod of approval from 130 health experts from across 19 countries, who say they are safe to use by employing basic hygiene.

Finally, there will be many householders who subscribe to Cornwall Council’s garden waste kerbside collection service, and/or use the local Recycling Centres (now open), and wonder what happens to their green waste? All will be revealed in the next issue.

(this article is based on one which first appeared in the Feock Parish magazine June 2020)

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