At BastaSiaBuono we make plant-based biscuits and crackers with as less environmental impact as possible.
While we serve an increasingly number of zero-waste retailers, the bulk of our customers run traditional stores where they require our biscuits to stand a shelf-life of months. As we avoid chemically processed preservatives, the only practical way to keep our biscuits fresh for so long is to wrap them in a moisture resistant film, before slipping them in a recyclable carton sleeve.
We wanted to stay away from plastic film since day zero and we wanted to choose an alternative material that is supported by a sustainable and available waste-treatment process. We soon realised that processes can vary region by region and thus we narrowed our quest to home-compostable bags because they perform well in generic waste-recovery without producing toxic residuals. Moreover, they are less energy-demanding, especially if one can compost them at home.
But shelf-life rules: a sizeable part of the food industry is instead taking the path of replacing polyethylene (i.e. plastic) with biodegradable plastic, which offers a better barrier at lower cost (than compostable film) for perishable goods.
It happens that, for our business, shelf-life is a lesser problem because we deliver on a shorter distance a fresher product (i.e. more often).
So far so good, except that we think that the value of our choice is somewhat diminished by how the industry uses the terms "compostable" and "biodegradable" interchangeably.
Well, they aren’t the same thing.
Biodegradable means that a product can break down without oxygen and turn into CO2, water and biomass within a reasonable amount of time. However, the way biodegradable is intended does not have a time limit placed on it. A detail that makes possible for some producers to hide behind a vague transparency.
The reality is that not all municipalities can treat biodegradable waste in a separate anaerobic environment as it should be. If biodegradable plastic can't be sorted, it is sent the waste recovery path of common plastic where it might either end in a landfill or burn in an incinerator. In the landfill, biodegradable plastic does not fully decompose because, when buried, it doesn't have enough oxygen. When thrown in the incinerator, biodegradable plastic reduces the plant’s efficiency producing residuals. And even when plastic recycling is available, if added to the recycling process, it can degrade the quality of the rest of plastic.
Compostable, on the other hand, works because microbes consume the waste and transform the organic material into compost. A compostable bag can break down into CO2, water, inorganic compounds and biomass in small pieces in about 90 days; the same as leaves and paper put in a backyard compost heap.
Compostable-waste treatment is widely diffused although its efficiency may vary. "Industrial-compostable" material, for once, needs energy to break-down nicely and it offers sub-par compost. This is why we make our bags with a mono-component, home-compostable film: the sort can be treated at ambient temperature in open-air heaps; its compost is a good fertiliser that doesn’t leave toxic residue behind because it’s already organic.
Of course, in an ideal world, packages should be reused rather than composted; it's encouraging that, in 2019, almost 30% of our production has been delivered in re-usable containers to zero-waste stores.
But in the wait that technology and awareness change consumer habits for good, we have chosen to prolong the lifetime value of our bags by... Turning them into soil.