Skip to content
20may opinion compostable packaging hero
1 June 2020

Confused by compostable packaging claims? You’re not alone.

A new report dishes the dirt on “compostable” packaging claims.

Eighteen percent of people in the UK admit they’ve dropped “compostable” packaging outside, mistakenly thinking it will rot quickly where it is. That’s from Can I recycle this? – a report published last month by Consumers International, the United Nations Environment Programme and One Planet Network.

I was horrified. I’m lucky enough to live in Gisborne where the beach is only a couple of minutes away. During summer we spend most days there, so keeping our beaches and waterways free of rubbish is an area close to my heart. I know I’m not alone. In our latest consumer issues survey, 80% of respondents said water quality at rivers and beaches was their top concern, followed by packaging waste (78%).

Can I recycle this? investigated recycling and sustainability labelling on plastic packaging all over the world. Only 19% of the labels looked at gave consumers quality information to make informed recycling and purchasing decisions. Compostable or biodegradable labels were the most problematic. The experts who assessed them were sceptical about whether these claims helped or hindered the environment.

If you're wanting to compost packaging yourself, you need to check your rubbish has a "home compostable" label.
If you're wanting to compost packaging yourself, you need to check your rubbish has a "home compostable" label.

This scepticism about compostable and biodegradable claims is nothing new. In 2018, an inquiry by New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton found these claims are confusing and often misleading.

In New Zealand there’s no standard for biodegradable or compostable plastics. To further confuse things, there are two types of compostable packaging: home compostable, which can be thrown in your backyard bin, and commercially compostable, which can only break down in commercial facilities under a constant set temperature of 55℃ or higher.

If you’re wanting to compost packaging at home, you need to check your rubbish meets one of the international “home compostable” standards. There’s no point putting your compostable coffee cup or food packet in your compost bin if it requires the conditions you’ll only get at a commercial facility. Plus, there are only 12 industrial and three community composting facilities in New Zealand so unless you live near one, there’s no point choosing commercially compostable packaging. Even having one nearby is no guarantee, as most have strict criteria about what they’ll accept. You can’t put it in your recycling bin either, so it’ll just end up in a landfill.

Can I recycle this? made five recommendations, including that plastic packaging labels need to be consistent globally and make it clear to consumers how to greenly dispose of them. The report also urged governments to provide the necessary facilities so consumers can make the sustainable choice. How about more composting facilities in New Zealand or allowing compostable packaging to be collected with recyclables?

These recommendations are a good starting point. It’s time to make the green choice the easy choice. If you’ve been confused by a compostability claim (or have other packaging that irks you) I’d love to hear from you at [email protected].

Image of a grandma

Fuel our fight for your rights

We’re working hard to keep big businesses and lawmakers in check on one-sided retirement village contracts, greenwashing claims, misleading supermarket prices and more. With your support, there’s power in numbers. Help us raise $50,000 in four weeks to stand up for your consumer rights.

Donate now

Stay in the know

Keep up-to-date with Consumer's latest news, investigations and product and service reviews, plus join the Consumer panel with invitations to take part in surveys.

Member comments

Get access to comment