Are fashion brands right to trial home-compostable bioplastic bags?

Levi Strauss and C&A are set to pilot compostable alternatives to conventional, single-use plastic bags that are often used to pack and post fashion for home deliveries. But a new study out this week questions the climate impact of compostable packaging.

Are fashion brands right to trial home-compostable bioplastic bags?

Pictured: Demin in a home-compostable polybag. Image: TIPA via Fashion for Good

Tuesday (13 December) saw the Amsterdam-based Fashion for Good initiative launching a new ‘Home-Compostable Polybag Project’. Under the project, retailers will trial alternatives to plastic polybags for six months, for applications like transporting products to stores, storing products in warehouses and completing online orders. They will seek to understand the transparency, durability and longevity of the innovative bags, plus how they are managed once they become waste.

Given that the fashion sector now uses more than 180 billion polybags each year, there is the potential for innovative solutions to displace a significant amount of single-use plastics that are hard to recycle.

Levi Strauss and C&A have signed on as the first brands to participate in the Project. They will be trialling compostable solutions from TIPA and Greenhope, which claim that their products will compost in either home composting environments or municipal facilities. Both firms have had the compostability of their packaging verified by a third-party certification scheme. They provide packaging with 25-25% bio-based materials.

Fashion for Good clarified in a statement: “Composting can be tested in two environments, home environments and industrial environments. Home compostability can happen in a backyard composting bin and at ambient temperatures, whereas industrial compostability requires higher temperatures (50-60°C) and specific conditions at a large-scale facility.”

This Project is the latest in a string of efforts to tackle plastic polybags by Fashion for Good. The organisation first stated plans to work on the topic in 2019, promising to look at a mix of solutions including recyclable options, compostables and reusable models. Last year, Fashion for Good published a whitepaper on scaling reusable models following trials with Zalando and Otto.

Commenting on this new phase, Levi Strauss’s chief sustainability officer called it an “exciting opportunity” that “not only moves Levi’s towards achieving [its] goal of eliminating single-use plastic in consumer-facing packaging by 2030, but also puts into practice the industry collaboration required to solve these ubiquitous challenges”.

C&A has a similar goal to replace at least half of single-use plastics in online shopping and the supply chain with more sustainable alternatives by 2028.

A truly sustainable alternative?

Fashion for Good has stated that “bio-based polymers have been found to have a lower carbon footprint when compared with fossil fuel-based polymers. The bio-based polymers are generated from biological feedstock, such as food crops, organic waste and wood pulp. The final compostable plastic blends are generally derived from a mix of bio-based materials and petroleum feedstocks.”

There are questions around whether the petroleum feedstock elements of compostable packaging have a lower carbon footprint, and about what happens to these kinds of materials when they are not processed in a municipal facility.

Packaging provider Sourceful has this week published research revealing that the global compostable packaging market is likely to be three times larger in 2026 than it was in 2021. This means that infrastructure and collection schemes need to be scaled up – the UK, for example, has no public collection schemes for homes and, as such, only 3% of compostables are industrially composted.

Sourceful has emphasised that proper waste management is important because compostables ending up in landfill can have a significant climate impact. A study of the life-cycle emissions of 20 common packaging materials by Sourceful found that bags made with compostable mono-material films, when left to degrade in nature, generate 228 grams of CO2e each. A comparable virgin plastic bag generates 118 grams, the study found.

Looking at emissions across the lifecycle, the conclusion was that the compostable bag would generate 2.5 times more CO2e than the virgin plastic bag if both ended up in landfill.

Most packaging solutions in the compostables market cannot be managed at home at present. So, it bears noting that the solutions being used by Fashion for Good will have a different lifecycle carbon footprint due to their ability to be managed in homes.

Comments (1)

  1. Andrew Stevens says:

    Compostable bags may generate 2.5 times more CO2e than virgin plastic bags, where both end up in landfill, but what about the residues left after composting.

    If compostable bags breakdown to leave the soil either no worse off, or possibly enriched after breakdown, and the virgin plastic leaves the soil worse off or even polluted, including micro-plastics (or worse), then which is the better trade off. More CO2 and less pollution from Compostables or more pollution and micro-plastics and less CO2.

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