Industry and regulators appear to be scrambling to keep pace with community desire for recyclable and compostable packaging as they wrestle with the problems of food packaging that contains harmful chemicals.
It has affected what can go in a FOGO bin, putting a brake on Bega Valley Shire Council's efforts to reduce the rubbish going to landfill, because of contamination fears in the compost made from FOGO contents.
The pizza box or cardboard takeaway container that was compostable in August 2022 is no longer so, says council.
With the sudden change of what can go in FOGO bins comes two different versions of what has happened.
Council said the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) had introduced new regulations calling it an "unexpected change" and "disappointing".
However, an EPA spokesperson told Australian Community Media there had been no change.
"The Compost Order that specifies what can be used to make compost in NSW has not changed, rather, the recent position statement simply formalises the existing position," the EPA spokesperson said.
The change from what Bega Valley Shire residents have been told can go into FOGO bins will undoubtedly cause confusion and has already angered some businesses, such as Merimbula's Cranky Cafe owners, Lee James and Patrick Cornthwaite who said they had remodelled their business around a FOGO-based waste system.
Items such as food-soiled paper and cardboard packaging, certified compostable packaging and cups, teabags, tissues, coffee filters, vacuum cleaner dust, hair, animal droppings and cat litter are no longer permitted and must go in the red bin, or recycled as appropriate.
"Only organic kitchen scraps and garden waste can be put into FOGO bins," council said.
The NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has flagged two problems, one that pet poo might not be composted at sufficient temperature to kill pathogens and also that compostable packaging may contain toxic PFAS chemicals.
The EPA spokesperson said the organisation wanted to limit the risk of contaminants.
The first many people knew of PFAS was the class action taken by residents living near the Williamtown RAAF base where chemicals had leached into the groundwater after their use in firefighting foam.
PFAS include per and polyfluoroalkyl substances and are a group of over 4000 chemicals. They are present in some compostable packaging to provide water and grease resistance and "may cause human and environmental harm," the EPA said.
The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) works with governments and businesses to build a sustainable national packaging ecosystem. It wants to see compostable packaging allowed in FOGO bins but also wants to see PFAS phased out.
APCO said it is supportive of the NSW EPA's effort to clean up FOGO to ensure output has maximum value for composters and poses no environmental risk when applied to land.
"This includes supporting industry with the development of an action plan to phase out PFAS in fibre-based food contact packaging, due for release by APCO at the end of September 2022," APCO said.
Research conducted by APCO in 2021 found just over a quarter of the samples contained high levels of PFAS.
The samples with high total fluorine were concentrated in the bagasse (sugarcane byproduct) category of packaging products. Other packaging types had variable levels of PFAS.
Roughly a quarter of the samples tested had no detectable PFAS.
APCO said a number of businesses were already doing work in sourcing non-PFAS alternatives.
An expert in PFAS in the environment, Dr Thava Palanisami of the University of Newcastle said not all compostable packaging contained PFAS and the EPA was in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
"We have a study in our lab of some 40 items but not all contain PFAS."
READ ALSO: Campaign for national PFAS ban ramps up
Dr Palanisami believes a lot of waste will be returned to landfill that doesn't need to go there. He thinks the answer is to ban PFAS and anything with PFAS in it.
"This is a serious contaminate and can affect health, even at very low levels," he said.
Adjunct professor at RMIT DR Helen Lewis said there was also a question of whether some plastic packaging would compost.
"Not all (composting) sites are set up to manage plastics. It is an emerging issue that everyone is scrambling to understand," Dr Lewis said.
The CEO of packaging company BioPak, Gary Smith said they were "disappointed for the progressive councils in NSW who have worked hard to implement circular solutions as part of their FOGO infrastructure".
BioPak had highlighted the work of Bega Valley Council on its website.
"This FOGO model is having incredible success in all the other states, and we're working closely with the NSW EPA to find an acceptable pathway to get certified compostable packaging composted in NSW," Mr Smith said.
He said the company worked with industry groups to identify, phase out and prohibit the use of PFAS in food contact packaging.
"As part of these efforts, BioPak has already released an initial PFAS-free bagasse assortment and we have made a commitment to fully transition away from products that may contain PFAS in 2023," Mr Smith said.
PFAS are man-made chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1940s. They have been used to make nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics, some firefighting foams, and products that resist grease, water, and oil.
The presence of PFAS in the environment is increasing while at the same time the guidelines for acceptable amounts are decreasing. The so-called forever chemicals continue to build up in the environment.
A study released in August 2022, by researchers from Stockholm University and ETH Zurich said the chemicals had become so pervasive they could be found in the rainwater and snow in even the most remote locations on Earth.
"During the last 20 years, guideline values for PFAS in drinking water, surface waters and soils have decreased dramatically due to new insights into their toxicity. As a result, the levels in environmental media are now ubiquitously above guideline levels," the researchers said.
In its position statement on PFAS the Federal Government said the ongoing sale or use of products (i.e. chemical based formulations) and articles (i.e. objects that contain chemicals) that contain long-chain PFAS , for any industrial or commercial application, should be phased out, in line with the Stockholm Convention (to which the government is a signatory).
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