Should you line food caddies with magazine envelopes?

An ever growing number of organisations are sending us their magazines in eco-friendly packaging: namely 100 per cent compostable bags.

They look like plastic, but they are not. One I have just received says it is made from potatoes.

While the much-trumpeted packaging offers advice on the limits of what you should do with it, such as put it in your waste food caddy but not in the plastic recycling or general bin, it doesn’t detail how long it will take to degrade in your garden compost facility.

In fact, there is a distinct difference in the definition of biodegradable and compostable, which might be lost on many people, especially those who get confused by the 39 different kerbside collection systems nationwide.

Biodegradable is widely defined as meaning something made out of a material that will naturally degrade. An example is paper, which used to be what packages of this size were regularly made from, before plastic proliferated.

Compostable is taken to mean a material especially created out of some sort of organic material, that will decompose eventually – potato or corn starch, perhaps. 

In the case of these “potato” envelopes, they will decompose in about three to six months (as opposed to plastic that takes several hundred years), in the right circumstances, which some say is the heat of industrial composters. 

I have stopped putting them into the caddy I tip out into the garden composter. I have found them at the bottom of my compost bins, even though they are supposed to disintegrate to carbon dioxide, water and biomass within three months. Maybe after researching them now, I should try again.

They are certainly less robust than the plastic alternatives, which is a positive if you wish them to break down in a compost bin. They stretch quite a way, but often start to tear when I put out the weekly food waste for the council to collect.  

Meanwhile, the local food waste collectors encourage you to wrap your waste in a bag – any sort of bag – which will be removed when they put the waste in their industrial compost processing mechanisms. 

One thing to look out for is the EN13432 standard on the item, to verify that it is what it says on the packaging – compostable. 

There are videos on YouTube on how to make your own “bioplastic”, a confusing term which might lead people to believe the ultimate item is plastic, but which really means “bio alternative to plastic,” in the definition of the person in the video.  

Many companies are developing these sorts of products, the video says, to be more “green”. 

Those using starch envelopes also want to have something that is lighter than paper, meaning it is less costly to post.

Compostable bag

Essentially, however, companies sending their magazines via heralded eco-friendly methods have switched one biodegradable product (paper) for another (potato starch or corn starch). Determining the carbon footprint, or the costs, of each is not easy to research.

Having used polythene plastic for many years, they now desire to be environmentally friendly thanks to public demand or a sense of corporate social responsibility.  

Depending on the type, some of these wraps are allegedly recyclable, although once again the emphasis is on the consumer to find a way to recycle it or hope they live in an area where a council or supermarket can do so. While one company says the polythene versions can be recycled this way, I don’t remember seeing any such labelling on such a packet.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, you might now have time to challenge any organisation which posts magazines to you regularly – annually, quarterly or monthly – to send them using one which you know can be recycled or repurposed, with full labelling.