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The Compost Bag Company

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So far The Compost Bag Company has created 25 blog entries.

Which bags to use for fresh fruit & vegetables?

A recent study by the French government agency ADEME assesses the environmental impact of the alternatives to the plastic fruit and vegetable bags banned since 2018 using scientific analyses of the full life cycle. The result is somewhat surprising: reusable alternatives are by no means more environmentally friendly than the single use ones and paper is not the best alternative from an environmental point of view. We will explain this briefly.

verpakking groenten en fruit

photo: Pexels.com

French policy on lightweight single-use plastic bags evaluated

In 2015, the European Union issued a Directive (2015/720) to restrict the use of single-use plastic bags, with the aim of reducing the negative impact on the environment. The transposition into French law led to a total ban on the use of such plastic bags, with the exception of bags that are home compostable and contain at least 40% material from vegetal sources (since the beginning of 2020 this minimum has been raised to 50% and in 2025 minimum 60% will be required). As a result of this legislation, many shops switched to reusable alternatives, including cotton, or to paper bags (for single use).

In 2019, the French government agency ADEME (L ‘Agence de l’environnement et de la maîtrise de l’énergie, recently renamed Agence de la transition écologique) commissioned an investigation into whether the objective of the legislation was indeed achieved. To this end, she had life cycle assessments (LCA) carried out on the various commonly used alternatives. The result was recently published[1].

[1] ADEME. J.Lhotellier, X.Logel, I.Decos. 2019. ACV comparative de sacs destinés à l’emballage de marchandises au point de vente autres que les sacs de caisse – Rapport. 210 pages

Reusable bags don’t live up to the promise

Reusable packaging is often being touted as the ideal solution. But that does not appear to be the case for this type of bags. For example, the ADEME study establishes that a reusable cotton bag must already be reused at least 40 times to achieve the same environmental impact as the single use alternatives. And this is only the case when you wash it very sporadically. With every wash, the negative environmental impact shoots up again.
The pessimistic assessment is partly due to the strongly negative environmental impact of growing cotton. This requires a high water consumption (up to 11,000 litres for 1 kg of cotton) and a high use of pesticides (up to 25% of all pesticides produced in this world are destined for cotton cultivation). Moreover, such cotton products are usually made in sweat shops with very bad working conditions and sometimes even child labour (this latter assessment was not a part of the ADEME LCA).
At the same time, a joint study by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace UK[2] shows that reusable bags (‘bags for life’) are barely actually reused in the United Kingdom.

[2] ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATION AGENCY & GREENPEACE. N. N. 2019. Checking Out on Plastics II: Breakthroughs and backtracking from supermarkets – Report. 40 pages
https://eia-international.org/report/checking-out-on-plastics-ii    

Paper is not the best alternative

The ADEME study also concludes that paper is not the best alternative from an environmental point of view. On at least 3 of the 6 assessment points, paper bags score worse than the home compostable bags made from renewable material (from a vegetable source).
What is a problem for paper is the high water and energy consumption during production and the high impact of logistics. Belgian UGent expert, Prof. Kim Ragaert[3] says that to have the same environmental impact as a single-use plastic bag, a bag made of 100% recycled paper must be reused at least 4 times!
Only … recycled paper cannot be brought into contact with food (vegetables & fruit) for sanitary reasons. So all paper fruit and vegetable bags are made from freshly felled trees. Then you have to reuse that bag many times more to have the same environmental impact. And that simply doesn’t happen.

[3] https://www.ted.com/talks/kim_ragaert_plastics_rehab/transcript

“And the winner is …”

What we already know for a long time has now been officially confirmed by a neutral French government agency: home-compostable bags, which consist of at least 40% renewable material (from plant sources), are the best alternative for packing fresh fruit and vegetables in the supermarket and on the street markets. All the more so if the bag is subsequently reused to collect food waste in the kitchen as part of a source separated waste collection scheme. And the steady rise of the minimum renewable content only makes it even better.

 

OUR RAW MATERIAL: from cardoon thistle to CompostBag

Thistles form the basis for the Compost Bag. This organic material gives our bags their most important characteristic: they are 100% compostable. But cardoon thistles have many other ecological and economic advantages. In spring, cardoon thistles produce large purple flowers, which are fertilised by bees. Once they have finished flowering, a seed ball remains, filled with seeds rich in vegetable oil. This oil is not suitable for food production, but it is the ideal raw material for bioplastics.

Easy to grow

Cardoon thistles are actually very easy plants: they bloom smoothly every summer for about seven years on the most arid soils. Because the roots penetrate very deep into the soil, they always find water and additional irrigation is not necessary. The dry and rocky soils in Sardinia – where the thistles grow – are a disaster for food cultivation, but the ideal soil for these plants. The soil does not need to be fertilised either: the remains of the thistles that remain after harvesting die off in winter and then feed the soil sufficiently to allow new plants to flourish.

Nothing is lost

To turn a thistle into a Compost Bag, a special harvesting machine is used that cuts the plant at two different heights. First she harvests the well-filled seed bulbs. Then the machine mows the dry stems further down to about 30 cm above the ground. With the stems energy is generated which drives a biorefinery. The installation extracts oil from the seeds with which bioplastics are eventually made.

What remains of the plant – the 30 cm stem – dies off and feeds the soil for a new cycle. Residual products released during the conversion of oil to bioplastics are also reused, for example in cosmetics or biological herbicides. In this way, each thistle is fully used.

Booming local economy

Cardoon thistles are not only a good thing from an ecological point of view, they also give the economy in poor Northern Sardinia a strong boost. An industry was built in the region decades ago to process oil from the Middle East, but that plan never got off the ground. The result? Fallow land, derelict industrial sites and unemployment.

Today, the harvesting and processing of cardoon thistles provides work for 250 Italians and the biorefineries are running at full speed. Fields that had not been worked for years are now full of thistles. What’s more, the flowers attract a lot of bees in spring. The honey they make provides an extra income for many local farmers. The remnants of the pressed seeds are also returned to the farmers as concentrates for their goats. and that makes for stronger animals that offer quality milk, cheese and meat.

Are you an environmental folklorist?

People tend to prefer simple solutions, including to complex problems. When they make decisions, they often rely on an intuitive framework rather than on well-considered and calculated analyses of available alternatives. When environmental decisions are to be taken, such intuitive framework is called “environmental folklore”. Solely relying on intuition can, however, play tricks on us if we really want to make the right decision to contribute to reducing the harmful effects on the natural environment. We briefly outline how this works.

Environmental folklore plays tricks on us?

When people have to make complex choices, they quickly fall back on simple solutions. This is what we want to hear: do this or don’t do that, and then everything will be fine. That was already the case when we were a child. If the solution is too complex, we will groan and see all sorts of reasons why it will not work and in the end, we fall despondently.

Rather than investing a lot of time and energy in extensively studying a complex problem and the available alternative solutions, we rely on a kind of intuitive framework. It is that little voice in your head that tells you that you are doing well. Applied to complex environmental problems, this leads to environmental folklore. That intuitive framework is based on experiences, on what we have heard, on fragmentary knowledge, on what we (want to) believe ourselves to be correct, etc. It is usually not really scientifically substantiated.

Being aware of environmental folklore is important, because we all want to do good for the environment, don’t we? How do we know if our actions as individuals, as a community, actually contribute to reducing the harmful effects on the natural environment? If we really want to go for more sustainability, we will have to find better ways to deal with complexity.

Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)

Science is trying to accommodate us with life cycle assessments. They look at the environmental impact of a product at the various stages from raw material extraction through production, distribution, use to end-of-life. Every stage has a distinct impact on the environment, which scientists try to map as well as possible. That provides fascinating insights and invalidates some stubborn myths.

 

Foto © Pexels

 

An example: the electric kettle. Manufacturers are launching super-efficient models that bring water to the boil with (relatively) little energy. But what does a British study show? 65% of Britons fill the entire kettle for only one cup of tea. So a lot of water is constantly being unnecessarily boiled. According to calculations, one day of unnecessary energy use by electric kettles in England is sufficient to keep all street lighting on for one night. However, everyone who has bought a super-efficient kettle thought that he did well for the environment.

 

Foto © Pexels

 

Another example: the cucumber with a “jacket”. The vast majority of people agree: the plastic foil around a cucumbre is the archetype of a totally unnecessary packaging. Ecologically disastrous! Is that so ? At least 95% of a cucumber consists of water and tends to lose moisture quickly. This makes the cucumber flabby and its texture somewhat rubbery. Nobody buys a flabby cucumber. These must be disposed of as waste by the supermarket. Even at home, half the cucumber in the fridge is thrown away when it has become flabby. That is a huge waste of food. In addition, une must not only look at the environmental impact of that waste, but also realize that all the environmental impact in the previous stages has proved to be completely unnecessary. Viewed in this way, the foil surrounding a cucumber is ecologically a fantastic solution: the “lifespan” of a cucumber is extended by 2 weeks. So less food waste.

 

Foto © Pexels

 

A final example: plastic or paper bags. Today everyone says: “Get rid of plastic! Paper is better for the environment! Or better yet: reusable cotton! ”However, LCAs say: paper and cotton are worse for the environment. For paper, reference is then made to the high water and energy consumption during production and to the high impact on logistics. That has to do with the fact that you have to make a paper bag 4 to 10 times as heavy to have the same functionality as a plastic bag. For cotton it is pointed out that the cultivation requires a high water consumption (up to 11,000 litres for 1 kg of cotton) and a high pesticide use (up to 25% of all pesticides produced in the world is destined for cotton growing). Moreover, cotton products are usually made in sweatshops with very poor working conditions and sometimes even child labour. Prof. Kim Ragaert from University of Ghent says: “to have the same environmental impact as a single-use plastic bag, a bag made of 100% recycled paper must be reused at least 4 times and a cotton bag at least 173 times!” Check out her TED talk, right here.

 

“When you’re in a traffic jam because someone has parked his car in the middle of the road, are we going to get mad at the car or the idiot who puts his car there?” Professor Kim Ragaert

 

By the way, the problem of plastic in litter is not a problem of the material, but of inappropriate human behaviour. As Professor Kim Ragaert herself says: “When you are in a traffic jam because someone has parked his car in the middle of the road, are we going to get angry with the car or the idiot who puts his car there? One to think about, isn’t it?

Complex Solution

Is it sufficient, then, to look at an LCA to see the light? Not quite. This technique is certainly more objective and more substantiated than pure gut feeling. But to a certain extent, it remains a simplification of a complex problem. The technique is also brimming with assumptions and generalizations, which are sometimes far from reality. And the calculations are made on the basis of generalized meta-data that does not always capture the specific situation.

The message is: an LCA is better than environmental folklore, but always take a critical look at it. Questions to ask are: does the LCA really cover all stages of the life cycle? Are the assumptions about what happens at each stage realistic and complete? Which data was used in the calculations and how representative are they? And very importantly, who prepared the LCA? Quite a lot of LCAs are drawn up for the purpose in hand.

Sorry, there is no simple answer to the complex environmental issues that we are confronted with. But it is certainly worth the effort to get away from the obvious environmental folklore and to look further than the end of your nose. Good luck !

 

EYE OPENER: compostable plastics in corona times

For fear of contamination with the corona virus, reusable packaging is advised or prohibited in some places. For hygiene reasons, a full switch has been made back to single-use packaging. This threatens to jeopardize a hard-fought realization of the environmental movement, namely the banning of single-use (plastic) packaging. (photo: Pexels.com)

This probably does not lead to a definitive and complete turning back of the clock. But at the same time, it is worth noting that a complete ban on all single-use plastic packaging is thoroughly re-examined. Is that in all cases the best solution? And what role can compostable plastics play. Let’s check it out.

Reusable packaging in a circular economy

Its share of global environmental pollution has put single-use plastic packaging in a bad light. Moreover, they do not fit in with a striving for a circular economy, in which material loss is maximally avoided. After all, many of the single-use plastic packaging is difficult to recycle. They are very light, which increases the complexity of the collection. They are also made from different types of plastic, which are difficult to separate. And when it comes to food packaging, they are often dirty with food residue. The result is that the end product of the recycling is of inferior quality and cannot be reused widely enough. That is why more and more countries and regions introduced legislation to replace single-use products with reusable ones.

Reusable packaging in corona times

Due to the outbreak of the corona pandemic, reusable packaging is now viewed very differently however. Suddenly attention has shifted from environmental pollution to health and hygiene. Packaging, which the consumer brings along, is now viewed with suspicion. Are those packages safe? And who is responsible if someone later falls ill and the packaging is pointed at as cause of the problem? Retailers fear that they will be blamed, then. Especially in the US, those responsibility risks are enough to completely change strategy again: reusable packaging is even banned. Things are not yet going so far in Europe, but the same questions are asked. Various retailers (temporarily?) suspend the phasing out of single-use plastic packaging.

What role can compostable packaging play?

In any case, compostable packaging should not be seen as the miracle solution. It is only a valid alternative in specific cases. But it has a lot of potential, especially with food packaging. It offers the hygienic security of traditional plastic packaging, but at the same time it also has the potential to tackle the quality problem in recycling. After all, compostable packaging is converted into compost together with the organic waste. Compost is a soil conditioner that makes plants grow healthier. The building blocks with which compostable packaging can be made, are extracted from plants via biorefining. The cycle is thus also closed. That is recognized by the Ellen McArthur Foundation in their Material Circularity Indicator.

Compostable packaging made from renewable raw materials (biobased) is therefore a circular alternative. And it is safe and hygienic. And much more convenient. Isn’t it?

CIRCULAR ECONOMY: clearly explained (part I)

By 2050, we will be living with 9.7 billion people on earth. That means more consumption and therefore more production. But that will put even more pressure on the climate and natural resources. Some suggest that a circular economy offers a way out, but what does that mean in concrete terms? The Compost Bag Company explains it clearly.

What is a circular economy?

In a circular economy, nothing is lost and everything is reused. Instead of taking raw materials from the earth over and over again, the materials from discarded products are reused as raw materials. A circular economy is therefore diametrically opposed to the linear variant, in which products made from newly mined raw materials are discarded at the end of their useful life and the materials they contain are lost.

The features of a circular economy

In concrete terms, goods are designed in such a way that they can be made partly or entirely from recycled raw materials. The consumer then treats the goods with care with a view to maximum functional reuse. In the event of a defect, the goods are initially repaired. If this is not feasible, the materials they contain are recycled as much as possible. Companies then manufacture new goods using recycled materials.

A washing machine, for example, is well maintained, but almost once it breaks down or no longer meets the requirements. Then it will first be repaired or upgraded. If that is no longer possible, then the manufacturer makes new machines with the reusable parts. From the non-reusable parts, the materials are recycled into new raw materials. In this way, waste becomes a (secondary) raw material.

A circular economy is therefore about much more than just recycling. All goods and production processes have to be rethought. Crucial factors include smart design, life cycle extension, reusability, dismantleability for repair and replacement …

What are the advantages of a circular economy?

You are less dependent on imports of raw materials

Europe is a continent with relatively few raw materials and is therefore highly dependent on its imports. But these are not infinitely available: finding and exploiting new sources of raw materials is becoming increasingly difficult, causing scarcity. Moreover, there is also great demand from other parts of the world. Today, there are already 27 materials on the list of critical materials in Europe. These are raw materials that are economically very important, but whose supply is at a standstill. At the same time, we are sitting on a mountain of materials that are present in our waste. In a circular economy, these materials are recycled and reused as much as possible, reducing our dependence on virgin raw materials.

The impact on the climate is reduced

Raw materials are not only becoming scarcer, their extraction is also a heavy burden on the environment. Added to this is the high CO2 emissions for the transport and production of goods. If you use products and raw materials for as long as possible, the energy cost and also the impact on the climate decreases.

New economic activities and more employment

The evolution towards a circular economy also brings with it the demand for new activities and certain profiles. This creates new opportunities for artisans, makers, repairers, sorters, transporters, creative designers, platform developers and much more.

In part II, we look in more detail at the different ways of recycling. Overpopulation puts pressure on the climate and natural reserves. A circular economy offers a way out, but what does that mean in concrete terms?

WHAT OUR BAGS ARE REALYY MADE OF

If there is one issue that regularly finds its way back to our platforms, it is that of the ingredients in our bags. ‘Microplastics’ they scream and yell, but nothing could be further from the truth. ‘What are your bags really made of?’ must be one of our most frequently asked questions. We feel that this question sometimes starts from a sincere interest, but it also happens that there is a strong scent of suspicion in the air.

Greenwashing? No, thanks

‘No plastic’ seems to be a trigger to many to bomb us as liars. The disbelief is great and it shouldn’t be that way. But can we blame them? Today, we can no longer avoid the term ‘greenwashing’. Greenwhat? In simple terms, this means that all kinds of ecological claims are made, which on closer inspection are not correct. For example, it’s not uncommon for shops to sell ‘compostable’ bags that are made of polyethylene (the most commonly used traditional plastic), with a hint of starch added. Clever, but we don’t fall for that.

The pioneer of truly compostable materials

So, what’s really in our bags? No plastic, we can already tell you that. Our main raw material is Mater-Bi from the manufacturer Novamont. They are a pioneer in the field of actual compostable materials. Did you know that all the innovations of the past thirty years come from them? But just like any other big player, Novamont keeps its trade secret. Obviously, because what would you be like if you had discovered the key to sustainability? Their secret is only shared confidentially with the certification institues so that they can in turn check compliance with the EN13432 standard. For example, they classify the absence of heavy metals and eco-toxic substances among them. Furthermore, they don’t lay their secret recipe on everyone else . The company must, of course, protect its know-how, which it has accumulated over a long period of time, from its competitors.

The three major elements

No secrets, we promised. That is why we can explain the three major elements of Mater-Bi. We speak of azelaic acid (C9H16O4), 1.4 butanediol (C4H10O2) and cornstarch.

The first two are components of organic chemistry, which can be obtained both from fossil resources (e.g. petroleum) and from renewable resources. Novamont is the only one to have succeeded so far in developing a biobased (or renewable) supply chain for butanediol based on residual sugars in the pulp of sugar beet. Go, Novamont! Azelaic acid is also extracted from oil from the seeds of the cardoon thistle. Both processes are very sustainable.

Bestandsdelen_Materbi

Artificial vs. Artificial

Is Mater-Bi a synthetic material? Yes, but in the way that it does not occur in nature. Don’t confuse it with the traditional plastic. They usually come from oil or gas and are not biodegradable. Mater-Bi, on the other hand, comes (for the most part) from nature, as can be deduced from the three building blocks, and eventually disappears back into nature through composting. Mater-Bi does not contain traditional plastic. Otherwise, it would never be labelled ‘OK-Compost’.

So, no microplastics at all?

No, otherwise we wouldn’t be allowed to use the term ‘fully compostable’. To do this, you must be certified with the logo ‘OK-Compost’. In addition, our bags are also certified by independent inspection authorities in accordance with EN13432. And did you know that the dyes and printing tones used, can also be composted fully certified? These too do not contain traditional plastic and therefore do not leave any microplastics behind when they decay.

In industrial composting, our bags decompose very quickly, much faster than -for example- a banana peel or an oak leaf. In home composting, it can take a little longer, because the conditions there are very different. Anyway, in the end our bags ‘return to nature’.

Curious about our compostable bags? You can order them here.

 

 

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