Biodegradation & Composting

Documentary That Killed Compostable Plastics in the Netherlands

Here's the translation of the most important fragments of the Dutch documentary "De Monitor" that killed compostable plastics in the Netherlands. 

Dutch Title: Is composteerbaar plastic de oplossing voor ons plastic probleem?

Translation: Is Compostable Plastic The Solution for our Plastic Problem?

Broadcasted on TV program “De Monitor” (The Monitor) on the Dutch TV channel “KRO-NCRV” on February 10, 2020.

Plastic News – 29 May

PRESENTER

Teun van de Keuken is a Dutch producer of television and radio programs who established a reputation investigating fair trade and production practices in the food industry; he founded the chocolate company Tony’s Chocolonely. We will refer to him as TEUN.

CONTEXT

TEUN inquires about compostable bioplastics. The journey starts in a take-away restaurant that serves french fries. The restaurant owner (Brendon Pompe) uses compostable plastic packaging and has two question:

  • Will compostable packaging disappear after a few weeks if they’re littered in the environment?
  • Are these compostable plastics better than regular plastics?

BRENDON POMPE, Take-Away Restaurant Owner

BRENDON – The compostable packaging I use are made from sugar cane pulp with an inside coating to make it waterproof.
TEUN – It mentions 100 % compostable on the packaging
BRENDON – Yes, but I pay for it.
TEUN – How much does it cost compared to regular packaging?
BRENDON – Between 3 to 5 times more expensive for sure!
TEUN – Is it an investment for the environment? Do you think these are being composted?
BRENDON – Yes, it’s written 100 % compostable.
TEUN – I’m going to take them with me and and do my research.

Winners of Corona Crisis

TEUN make an open call to the public to receive more compostable objects: cups, meat trays/packaging, dog shit bags, straws and rain coats. All these products are made from sugar cane, corn, wheat or potatoes.

TEUN watches a TV ad from a retailer called Coop that claims to pack their bio-meat in “Bio-packaging”. In the ad, the actor throws the meat packaging with the bio-waste.

SUPPLIERS

TEUN calls the company that produces the “biologically degradable” raincoats.

Circular Plastics

TEUN – What does it mean “biologically degradable” ?
Company representative (rep): it’s better for the environment … after a while it’s gone…

TEUN calls other companies and they tell him similar claims.

Compostable Plastics

JELMER VIELSTRA, Expert in Circulair Resources

TEUN Meets Jelmer Vielstra, Expert in Circulair Feedstock to show him the compostable plastics objects that he received during his open call.

Biobased Plastics

One of the objects is a PLA cup (there’s a little notice inside the cup)

  • JELMER – This PLA cup will never biodegrade by itself!
  • TEUN: What is PLA?
  • JELMER: That’s just plastic.
  • TEUN – On the paper is written 0% plastic.
  • JELMER – That’s a lie!

One of the object is a coffee cup

  • TEUN – We use the following coffee cups at the TV station. It’s written 100 % compostable on the cups.
  • JELMER – These cups are not made of paper only, they need a coating to make them waterproof, the coating is probably made from PLA. PLA does not disappear under natural conditions.
  • TEUN – There’s a sign on the burger boxes that says 100 % compostable.
  • JELMER – That means under industrial conditions and in a waste processing company.
  • TEUN – None of the objects degrade in the environment?
  • JELMER – No!
  • TEUN – But it’s written 100 % compostable?
  • JELMER – In practice, it means that it will degrade under industrial conditions. The suggestion is created that plastic is not good but that compostable plastics degrade in the environment and that the plastic problem will disappear.
  • TEUN – These packaging must be composted in an industrial facility. Let’s contact the composting facilities.

MAARTEN LEMMERS, Spokesperson at Meerlanden ( waste Collection company)

TEUN calls the waste collection company who collects Brendon’s waste Brendon and speaks to Maarten Lemmers (spokesperson Meerlanden).

  • TEUN – You collect Brendon’s Waste. I guess you must be happy with it because you can convert it into compost?
  • MAARTEN – No these packaging do not go into our installations.
  • TEUN – These packaging do not end up in your composting installations?
  • MAARTEN – No, we remove them.
  • TEUN – It’s written 100 % compostable but you don’t compost them?
  • MAARTEN – Exactly!
  • TEUN – What do you do with it?
  • MAARTEN – They go with the other residual waste to the energy factory … to the incinerators.
  • TEUN – They go to the incinerators? I think this is a shocking statement!
  • MAARTEN – I can’t make it look nicer than it actually is.
  • TEUN – What a disappointment it will be for Brendon. Expensive packaging but no compost. Why are these packaging incinerated instead of brought to an industrial composting facility?

ROBERT CORIJN, Attero (Industrial Composting facility)

There are 20 industrial composting facilities in the Netherlands that convert GFT waste (biowaste = Groente, Fruit and Tuin = Vegetables, Fruit and Garden) into compost. Teun visits the biggest industrial composting facility in the Netherlands (Attero) and asks the question: Would they like to receive Brendon’s packaging?

  • TEUN – Here look … I brought some compostable packaging with me!
  • ROBERT – You brought a lot of things with you!
  • TEUN – They can be sorted with the GFT waste?
  • ROBERT – No, in reality we don’t like to receive these packaging!
  • TEUN – Why not?
  • ROBERT – These (packaging) don’t have any environmental benefits.
  • TEUN – But they are compostable? Are they being composted here?
  • ROBERT – We would compost compostable packaging if they made the compost better, but these things don’t contribute to a better compost.
  • TEUN – … Teun shows more compostable packaging…
  • ROBERT – It’s done with a good intention but they don’t help the composting process. We want to make good compost that helps farmers but these (packaging) don’t help.

They go outside to see the residual waste that is removed from the biowaste (it’s full of plastic bags).

  • TEUN – if we had included the compostable packaging in the GFT waste, they would have ended up here?
  • MAARTEN – Most of them!
  • TEUN – So they wouldn’t be composted?
  • MAARTEN – Most of them don’t degrade fast enough and the other may degrade in time, but not many. The residual waste is incinerated.

SANNE JANSSEN from Milieu Centraal

TEUN – We called all the industrial composting facilities in the Netherlands to ask if they wanted to receive the compostable packaging. Unfortunately, nobody wants it! I don’t understand it anymore! Should these packaging be sorted with the GFT or with the residual waste? Let’s call the government for advice.

He calls Sanne Janssen spokesperson of Milieu Centraal. Milieu Centraal is a public information organisation. Our mission is to enable consumers to make sustainable choices. Our information is independent, reliable and practical. We have no commercial interests. Read more

  • SANNE – At this point in time, Milieu Centraal advises to throw bioplastic with the residual waste and not with the GFT waste (Biowaste).
  • TEUN – So you may think, it’s compostable because many companies says that you can sort it with the GFT waste (biowaste) but you say don’t do it?
  • SANNE – Don’t do it! Bioplastics should always go with the residual waste.
  • TEUN – I understand for the regular bioplastics. But I also have bioplastics with an official certificate .. a kind of leaf (the seedling logo). Those can be sorted with the GFT?
  • SANNE – No, compostable products such as single use cutlery and trays should go with the residual waste…
  • TEUN – Even if there’s the logo?
  • SANNE – Yes, whatever logo is on it.
  • TEUN – But this logo is an official European certificate.

ROBERT CORIJN, Attero (Industrial Composting facility)

  • TEUN – There’s a nice logo on this packaging.
  • ROBERT – The Seedling logo…
  • TEUN – This label means that the packaging is compostable in an industrial composting facility. So why is it not composted?
  • ROBERT – Our composting period is 4 weeks in the Netherlands. The seedling logo says that it should degrade in 12 weeks. If we had a 12 weeks compost period, then we should build two or three times more factories than today. So we don’t do it!
  • TEUN – Would it be too expensive?
  • ROBERT – Yes, then the all GFT processing in the Netherland will become much more expensive.
  • TEUN – And the bill would be paid by the citizens!
  • TEUN – How is it possible that this label does not fit reality? Let’s call the agency that issues these labels.

MICHIEL VAN GESTEL, Spokesperson TÜV Austria

  • MICHIEL – It’s true what you say… in real life, composting facilities work with a shorter processing period, but we certify compostability according to European Norms.
  • TEUN – But this doesn’t reflect reality?
  • MICHIEL – We can only certify according to the norm.
  • TEUN – This is not very useful.
  • MICHIEL – I cannot give my opinion on how it works in real life. We can only certify according to European norms.
  • TEUN – Looks like pure civil service reality, they don’t bother how it happens in the real world because they just bother to respect the norm.

ROBERT CORIJN, Attero (Industrial Composting facility)

  • TEUN – What do you think of the fact that all these products with the claim “100 % compostable” will not be composted?
  • ROBERT – It’s all done with good intentions, but unfortunately it doesn’t benefit the environment.
  • TEUN – Is it a misleading claim?
  • ROBERT – Yes, I think so.
  • TEUN – Is this a marketing trick? Time to visit the supplier of the packaging!

Anonymous spokesperson, NATUREKO

  • TEUN visits the company of the compostable packaging, but they do not open the doors.
  • TEUN calls them
  • NATUREKO – You tried to call us several times last week and we told you we don’t want to collaborate.
  • TEUN – We’re doing a program on your packaging. It would be nice to give you the chance to say something about it.NATUREKO – We have decided not to take this chance. We don’t want to work with you.

MICHIEL LEIJENAAR, Director Media Building

  • TEUN – There’s still hope. You can pay extra to have your packaging composted. And that’s what we’re doing at our company (TV channel “KRO-NCRV”). Our coffee cups are made from sugar cane fibres with a bioplastic coating and it’s 100 % compostable.
  • MICHIEL – The cups are compostable, we sort them and someone collects them.

They walk outside to have a look at the waste and discover that the compostable cups are not sorted properly, they’re with the residual waste.

RENEWI WASTE MANAGEMENT COMPANY

  • TEUN – You collect our waste but I’ve seen that compostable cups are mixed with the residual waste.
  • RENEWI – Correct!
  • TEUN – That’s crazy! What happens to the cups?
  • RENEWI – They’re collected with the residual waste and are processed as residual waste and thus transformed into energy …
  • TEUN – They’re incinerated?
  • RENEWI – Yes!
  • TEUN – We thought that you processed these cups separately because we sorted them out separately. We didn’t thought that you processed them with the residual waste!
  • RENEWI – I understand your point of view. What we see in real life is that what’s been invented at the frontend, does not always fit with the backend.
  • TEUN – Why haven’t you told us before that the cups weren’t being composted?
  • RENEWI – I don’t know what was told in the past. I wasn’t there! So I can’t give you a reasonable answer on this question.
  • TEUN – You have kept the fairy tale alive that the cups are being composted!
  • RENEWI – There’s a lot to win with correct information.
  • TEUN – But you haven’t given the correct information. Worse, we pay to have these cups collected separately, we pay for it to be composted. You’re lying to the people!
  • RENEWI – I wouldn’t say that!
  • TEUN – What are you going to do in the future about our cups?
  • RENEWI – The cups will be collected separately and will be processed separately.
  • TEUN – Processed separately?
  • RENEWI – Yes, we’ll send them in the recycling corner to see if we can make new material from it.

MICHIEL LEIJENAAR, Director Media Building

  • TEUN – I have sad news for you. These compostable cups are not being composted, they’re being incinerated.
  • MICHIEL – This is really sad. Bullocks. I feel ripped off in fact. That people are not honest. I feel that I’ve been treated as a fool

SIETSE STAD, director at BIOODI

Teun calls the company who sold the cups (Bioodi) to the TV channel.

Circular Plastics

  • SIETSE – We only say that it can be composted; that it’s 100 % compostable. It needs collaboration in the whole system.
  • TEUN – So our compostable cups with the mention “100 % compostable” are not being composted in the current system?
  • SIETSE – In the current system … no
  • TEUN – Will you change the mention to “Compostable in Theory, but not in practice”?
  • SIETSE – Maybe!

FRANCOIS DE BIE, President of European Bioplastics

  • TEUN – Why don’t companies remove the claim “100 % compostable” from the packaging? Let’s ask the president of the Bioplastics Federation.
  • FRANCOIS – We, as a federation, have, unfortunately, not everywhere the full control of what kind of products are being produced.
  • TEUN – It’s not about the products that are produced but about how they’re being marketed!
    Apparently, it’s more attractive to say to the customers that it’s compostable. What are you going to tell your members? Guys, remove it!
  • FRANCOIS – We often say to our members that they shouldn’t market their products as biologically degradable or compostable. I’m not in favour of companies selling raincoats as biologically degradable.
  • TEUN – Would you want to remove the phrase “100 % compostable” from the cups?
  • FRANCOIS – Yes, it can be removed. I know that the term ”compostable” sounds good in the ears of many marketeers. What I find more charming, is the other thing mentioned on the cups: CO2 neutral, reduced CO2 footprint.
  • TEUN – So there’s fake marketing being done with this kind of packaging? On one hand at the purchasing of the packaging, on the other hand at the processing of the packaging. Nobody says anything about it and you pay more for it
  • FRANCOIS – I don’t think it’s correct how many of these products are marketed. As a federation, we don’t think it’s correct.
  • TEUN – Even the federation think it’s a misleading claim.

YVONNE VAN ASSELT, Spokesperson at COOP

COOP made a commercial for their bio-meat packed in bioplastics packaging.

  • YVONNE – We have decided to stop it. And you have to be honest, It’s a bit sad because it’s a sustainable packaging.
  • TEUN – A sustainable packaging that has contaminated the GFT waste!
  • YVONNE – It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t work. We didn’t know.
  • TEUN – When you did that commercial, where you a bit stupid?
  • YVONNE – I understand your remark. We did it with the best intentions.
  • TEUN – So you don’t know everything about these packaging? It’s a bit naive?
  • YVONNE – The packaging, technically speaking, respects specific European norms if it’s compostable. In reality, we see something else. So we have decided to switch to another packaging line.

CUPS USED BY GOVERNMENT

TEUN is being told that the Dutch Government is using the same coffee cups as they do. TEUN contacts the Government and they reply to him by email. The Dutch Government has a contract with Renewi since 2019. Renewi processes our coffee cups into toilet paper in a paper factory and do no transform them into compost.

TEUN calls the paper factory and is being told that they don’t recycle the cups into toilet paper.

TEUN contacts Renewi and receives the following answer: the cups have been incinerated because they were too filthy for recycling.

TEUN contacts the Dutch Government with the news and receives the following answer: we don’t want to react because it’s too fresh for us. We want to analyse first what is the situation and how we will proceed.

BRENDON POMPE, Take-Away Restaurant Owner

  • TEUN – I did my research but I don’t have good news for you. These compostable packaging are incinerated, not composted.
  • BRENDON – Not at all?
  • TEUN – Not at all! What do you think?
  • BRENDON – It’s a marketing trick, but I paid for it…much more…and it’s not worth it! I feel ripped off.

 

WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY

PERSONAL REMARKS

I had a bitter taste in my mouth after watching that documentary. What I will remember:

From the Industrial Composters:

  • compostable plastics does not improve the quality of the compost, and
  • compostable plastics does not compost within their composting time.

From the Certification Agency

  • They don’t seem to bother that the composting label doesn’t fit the composting timeframe of the composters.

From the President of European Bioplastics:

  • ”compostable”  is a term that sounds good in the ears of marketeers;
  • you can remove the 100 % compostable label

I mean, if the composters don’t want it, if the certification agency isn’t bothered with industrial reality and if the the president of European bioplastics believes “compostable” is just a marketing claim that can be removed.

Well then I think …. Houston, we have a problem !!!

 

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