Nothing gets me more fired up then finding out I have been duped into believing something misleading! I want to give a shout out to an former teacher of mine, Gwyneth Connell, for giving me this blog post idea. It annoys me that companies are allowed to throw a recycling logo on packaging that 9 out of 10 facilities don’t/can’t recycle. It annoys me even more that companies are allowed to slap a compostable label on a product that REQUIRES a special facility to compost it. You know how a cigarette pack has “WARNING this product can cause cancer” plastered on the side? Compostable plastic should be required to slap the slogan “WARNING this shit can’t be composted”.
I promise this post won’t be a long rant. One thing that I have learned through starting this blog is that environmental topics are like fire ant colonies, you think its a basic hole in the ground only to find out it is an entire city of ants living in your backyard (skip to 1:55 to see what I’m talking about). This post gets me fired up because it’s a reminder that we cannot trust what companies tell us or what packaging says. We MUST take this pandemic into our own hands and educate ourselves on the proper prevention and disposal techniques.
So…what is compostable material???
The term, “compostable” and “biodegradable” is like the new “organic”! Picture this… you find yourself eating “naturally flavored 50% reduced-fat whole wheat organic flaming hot Cheetos that come in a compostable plastic bag thinking “its OK, it is good for me and the environment because its organic, low fat, and in compostable material.” Hate to burst that bubble BUT unfortunately, companies aren’t that moral…they are profitable… which are two completely different things.
To understand what this “compostable wave” is all about, I think its important to understand the categorization of “bio-plastics”. To simplify, there are two main categories:
Biodegradable means the material can be broken down by microbes turning into biomass, water and carbon dioxide over time.
Compostable means that not only are they broken down by microbes, but they can be turned into compost. In order to label packaging compostable, it requires that at least 90% of the packaging can be broken down within 90-180 days, within a commercial composting facility.
Commercial Composting Facility???
Commercial composting facilities are industrial facilities that can handle massive quantities of compostable material. They do this by maintaining a very specific temperature, moisture, oxygen, and carbon-to-nitrogen levels, they create “ideal conditions” which accelerates the breakdown process. Don’t get me wrong, these facilities are amazing and are doing great things to reduce waste and landfill around the world. The problem isn’t the facility, it is the messaging to the public…
PIERREPONT! Where are you going with this?!?
Compostable plastics were a great attempt at trying to reduce our plastic waste and in theory, they seem like a great solution. Compostable materials end up at one of the commercial facilities where it decomposes in 90-180 days. The PROBLEM lies in the fact that most of this packaging never makes it to a composting facility! This material doesn’t just decompose if left on the ground. It requires the specific environment I mentioned above (temperature, moisture, oxygen, etc…) which is only accomplished through those commercial facilities. If that cup/straw ends up anywhere else, it is no different than a normal plastic cup. The reason this is bothersome is because we have been led to believe that we are doing the right thing by using compostable packaging. Unless you are personally delivering these compostable plastics to a commercial facility, you are basically paying a premium for a mislabeled plastic cup that has to be sent to the landfill.
Unfortunately…Most of America DOES NOT have a commercial facility within driving distance! So…your cup isn’t compostable, its trash.
The last thing I want to do is send a “dooms day” message leaving readers saying “so why should I go through the hassle?” To bring this full circle and leave you with the solution I personally utilize, here are a few steps to ensure we control the outcome of our waste:
Change your Mindset! Just because it says its “compostable” doesn’t mean it will compost on its own. Make sure it gets to a facility which can handle compostable plastics and do not assume that the store is going to do the right thing. Remember… They can up-charge by looking eco-friendly, even if they are more of the problem then the solution. If you don’t have access to a facility, Terracycle’s “Zero Waste Composting Bucket” is an option, although expensive.
Be Mindful! If you have to use compostable plastic and there is no available composting solution, PLEASE THROW IT AWAY! It does terrible things to the recycling system. In this situation I might argue you are better off using regular plastic, cleaning it, and recycling it as there is at least a potential end of life solution.
Find a Solution! Add a “reusable” kit to your daily carry bag. In my Is your “Go Bag” ready? blog post I have identified 9 small items we can carry daily to drastically reduce our single-use waste.
If you follow these three steps you will not only take a major step towards reducing your daily waste, you will also become part of the solution vs. the problem. ALSO, if you truly follow these steps, you will find that utilizing reusable items is the EASIEST option (funny how that works). Remember, no successful person has EVER said “I have achieved true success by taking the most convenient road”. A little food for thought until next time 😉
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