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Dan Haney

Mythbusting Common Compostability Claims

Recently, I walked into a smoothie shop and got a smoothie bowl for lunch. A secondary win to making a healthy (and delicious) lunch decision was that both the bowl and single-use spoon were marked compostable. It happened again only a few days later at my favorite brewery when I noticed their tasting cups were indeed compostable. The issue here with these little wins is all of this compostable packaging is still going to end up in a landfill. I called and checked, there aren’t any industrial composting facilities in my area that actually accept compostable plastics. 

As of now, only about 185 cities in the U.S. pick up food waste at the curb for composting, but fewer than half of those accept compostable packaging. Does that mean that this packaging shouldn’t be considered by brands and small business owners when looking to move towards greener packaging? Not at all, when used correctly, this biodegradable packaging format can provide environmental benefits ranging from lower carbon footprints to the reduction of waste sent to landfill.

Unfortunately, misconceptions run rampant around composability and we hear them all of the time. Here are just a few examples of the questions and calls we receive at Haney.

Compostable Cup Haney

Compostable packaging can be freely disposed of in the environment.

False! Compostable packaging isn’t a free pass to litter. Packaging marked compostable should always be disposed of in an industrial composting facility or if indicated a home compost. For these materials to properly degrade the right lever of heat, water and oxygen must be present to fully compost.

When it comes to materials that are considered marine degradable this, once again, does not give the license to toss your trash in the ocean. Rather, marine degradable products are designed only to provide a last resort if packaging materials accidently end up in our waters.

To build off of this statement, compostable packaging will not degrade within a landfill either. For the same reason that you can’t simply toss a compostable package on the side of the road, conditions within a landfill do not meet the requirements needed to break down, particularly due to a landfill’s anaerobic environment.

Industrial Composting

Biodegradable and compostable are the same

False! Do you remember your amazement in grade school geometry when you learned that all squares are rectangles but not every rectangle is a square? This same principal can be applied here. Compostable items are inherently biodegradable, but if a material is biodegradable that does not mean it can be considered compostable.

The principal difference between biodegradable and compostable is that in order for a material to be characterized as compostable it must break down within a specific time frame and leave no harmful residues or toxins behind. In order for materials to be certified compostable they must meet the US ASTM standard D6400 or D6868.

Biodegradability, in turn, refers to a material than can break down in the environment, however, unlike compostability, there is no associated time frame and no criteria for residue left behind. This term is also highly misleading as everything, including plastic, will degrade if given enough time.

Composting is better than recycling

It depends. While composting does have its place in the waste hierarchy, it isn’t at the top of the list. There is a reason the phrase we all grew up chanting was “Reduce, reuse, recycle!” Looking at the waste hierarchy reduction of materials use and recycling are still at the top, followed by composability, but why?

The reason for this, is due to the fact that recycling can be a more efficient use of energy. For example, while paper products may be compostable, its highest and most proficient use of materials would be through the recycling stream, unless soiled with food waste. When recycled, paper is brought back down to the raw material state to be reused, preserving the energy, carbon and other resources used to develop that paper. If you were to compost that paper, while it would return back to the soil the entire process would need to be started from scratch, resulting in more energy usage.  

That isn’t to say that composting doesn’t have its place. Composting is most logical when the likelihood of the material being composted is greater than the likelihood of it being recycled. In instances where the material is prone to be soiled by food, discarded with food scraps, or contaminated and unable to be recycled, composting is the best option.

Recycling vs. Composting

Unfortunately, these fallacies and many other common misconceptions surrounding compostable packaging can do more harm than good.

This isn’t to say that compostable packaging doesn’t have its place within the greater packaging landscape. Compostable packaging, when used correctly, can result in the reduction of greenhouse gas and fossil fuel emissions, divert materials from landfills, and helps to conserve the use of new and virgin materials needed to develop packaging. And as compostable packaging becomes more prominent, city composting programs will have to expand to accept compostable packaging to ensure these bio-based packaging formats can provide their intended environmental benefits.

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