UK consumers have a confused understanding about "green" plastics and how to dispose of them, according to a survey by the Waste and Resource Action Programme (Wrap).
The confusion indicates that recent efforts by processors to increase their use of recyclable and compostable packaging may not be paying off in the way they hoped.
"New 'green' biopolymer plastics need to be introduced with care if potential environmental benefits are to be maximised," Wrap stated yesterday in releasing the survey results.
The research found that most consumers are confused about the wide range of new materials emerging with "biodegradable", "home compostable", "compostable" and "degradable" labels.
In addition, the UK currently does not have the the appropriate infrastructure for such materials to be collected and treated in the country, Wrap noted.
Wrap called for clear labelling and guidelines for products, stating such measures are vital to achieve the full environmental benefits of the new materials.
Wrap and other stakeholders are working with the Composting Association to modify standard tests and provide a certification service for home compostable packaging. The group will also provide guidance on "compostable" claims that such items carry.
Such labels are being introduced in the UK as bags, pots, trays, films or bottle formats, albeit in relatively small quantities at present, Wrap stated. The Wrap commissioned research surveyed about 400 consumers across the UK.
Wrap also plans several areas of work with key groups in the sector to review the options and impacts for collecting biopolymers via the plastic recyclables and food waste collection routes.
Wrap also wants to establish better understanding of the public's knowledge and perceptions of the new packaging materials and to try and determine what householders would do with the packaging on disposal.
In the survey consumers initially rate biodegradable and compostable plastics very favourably as they believe they just "break down" after disposal, according to the survey.
"However when made aware of some of the possible impacts some of the biopolymers can have on plastics recycling, commercial composting or if sent to landfill sites, the respondents were less clear of the overall benefits, and were left feeling confused," Wrap stated.
In response to the survey's findings, Wrap has published a statement on biopolymers to help set out some of the considerations the organisation says processors and retailers should review when considering the use of biodegradable or compostable packaging materials.
The statement clarifies some of the definitions used, and factors to consider regarding disposal and environmental impact.
Wrap executive director Phillip Ward said that although compostable packaging and biopolymers have great potential in the food sector, manufacturers need to introduce them carefully, with the correct infrastructure in place, so that they can be dealt with properly once they have been used.
"We believe the material producers and retailers using these new materials have a responsibility for introducing them in a responsible and coordinated manner," he stated.
Wrap is a government-funded organisation formed to promote waste reduction in the UK.