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Are misleading labels causing ‘eco littering’?

Labelling for packaging is vital. It reflects the characteristics of the product as well as telling you what is inside. However, are misleading labels causing ‘eco littering’?

The latest RawPac research shows that this might well be the case. As an expert in its field, RawPac is keen to find solutions to the problems of sustainability and what we do with our packaging at end of life. The company is warning that confusion around ‘compostable’ packaging could lead to an increase in ‘eco littering’ as one in five (18%) consumers admit that they have dropped ‘compostable’ food and drink packaging outside, mistakenly thinking it is okay to do so in the belief it will quickly rot down where it is.

And, 38% of people say they have had to remove compostable packaging from their home compost bin because it didn’t break down, without realising that this kind of packaging must be dealt with at specialist recycling facilities.

The study of 2000 UK consumers was undertaken by RawPac, which says that consumers are confused by environmentally friendly food and drink packaging labelling and are losing patience with the lack of recycling options available to them.

Some 18% of those questioned said they ‘don’t see much benefit’ in recycling their packaging as ‘it ends up in landfill anyway’ and 29% regularly put their compostable food and drink packaging in normal public litter bins. 

Despite frustrations from consumers, putting packaging labelled as ‘compostable’ in a normal litter bin still benefits the environment, as it requires less resource to handle at landfill than other packaging.


Owner of Manchester based RawPac, Tim Wilson, believes the con-fusion over the term ‘compostable’ could lead to an increase in eco littering by consumers who are buying this packaging in good faith to help the environment. He believes consumers want plastic free packaging, but are becoming frustrated at the lack of public composting facilities and confused by mixed messages about what they can and can’t do with takeaway food packaging and coffee cups.

Tim warns more education is needed: ‘Home composting isn’t suitable for most ‘compostable’ food and drink packaging. This sort of packaging requires a com-mercial composting facility for it to break down. But consumers can be forgiven for being confused. After all, it often says ‘compostable’ on the packaging. That is why we have started calling our products ‘plant based’, rather than ‘compostable’. It manages expectations.’

The RawPac study found that many consumers believe ‘compostable’ packaging will biodegrade by itself if left to rot. And the study found that 18% of cons-umers have left compost- able packaging outside to rot, effectively littering due to misconceptions. Younger consumers are most likely to believe it is okay to drop litter if it is compostable. Some 28% of 18 to 34 year olds said they had dropped litter that was marked ‘compostable’ thinking it would was okay to do so.

Mixed messages

Tim says consumer expectations are out of kilter with reality. ‘Labelling food and drink packaging as ‘compostable’ can cause consumers to see littering as harmless. Obviously, a plant based cup will break down eventually, but it is still an eyesore and contributes to other problems while it sits in a hedgerow or by the side of a road.

‘The industry is working hard to improve packaging and lower the environmental impact of convenience food and drink, but consumers are clearly frustrated at what they perceive to be a lack of facilities. ‘Even if plant based packaging goes to landfill, it is better for the environment as it breaks down naturally over time, something which normal paper cups don’t do because of the waterproof coating used. The fact that a significant amount of consumers think that ‘sending to landfill’ is a bad thing in and of itself suggests we could all be doing more to educate people on the benefits of plant based food and drink packaging.’

He continued, ‘When consumers see ‘compostable’ on their packaging, they naturally think this means they can recycle their packaging at home. We feel that ‘plant based’ is a more useful description. ‘Consumers clearly have an appetite for helping the environment and are paying attention to what their pack-aging is made of, but if they end up disap- pointed and frustrated by their expectations and the mixed messages they are getting, we risk that appetite declining very quickly.

‘We are at a crucial point in the journey toward reducing our carbon footprint and hitting a critical mass of consumers dem-anding sustainable products, but if they think that their own effort is wasted, we will lose that support and momentum very quickly indeed.

‘One thing that really frustrates our customers is the lack of consistency across local authorities. With some authorities you can recycle certain things that others won’t let you. And that applies to green waste too, which requires better provision from local authorities and better awareness among consumers.’

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