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What does “compostable” mean?

By Alex Truelove
Director, Zero Waste Campaign

This product is certified compostable.

Increasingly, this phrase is appearing on a variety of everyday goods -- from paper coffee cups and plastic forks to molded pulp packaging.

Compostable products are “in” and are being heralded as tiny white knights sent to save us from the perils of plastic pollution. In concept, that sounds great. After all, in the natural environment, plastic’s complex molecular structure resists the advance of bacteria and other microorganisms, making it rather indestructible. In contrast, compostable materials can be broken down in similar circumstances. This means plastic products, which we use for five minutes, will persist in the environment for hundreds of years, while compostables can break down in a matter of days.

But thinking more broadly, does this mean that compostable products can play a central role in transitioning us to a more sustainable economy?

Unfortunately, the answer is, “It depends.” For one thing, we should avoid any single-use option -- compostable or otherwise --  and instead rely on products like reusable coffee mugs and to-go containers that will last for years. But to the extent that some disposable products remain in our future, we’re better off making them compostable under one important condition: We actually compost them.

It’s not enough to stamp “compostable” on a product and expect good things to happen. Without compost collection, most of these products end up in landfills, where it doesn’t matter that they’re compostable. In these dark compacted spaces, even compostable items deteriorate anaerobically, which means they produce methane, a greenhouse gas significantly more potent than carbon dioxide. In a year, our landfills emit more than 108 million metric tons of CO2, which is equivalent to burning nearly 120 billion pounds of coal.

On the other hand, when organic material is properly composted, the process mimics the natural world and is vastly better for the environment. In industrial compost facilities, the method can break down even some of the more controversial compostable products out there like “bio-based plastics,” which are derived from corn, starch and even algae. And, of course, composting means not only get rid of unwanted materials, but also making them useful again as vital soil nutrients in gardens, parks and farmlands.

For years, most Americans have understood the importance of this indispensable process. In fact, back in 2014, 68 percent of those surveyed in a nationwide poll said they’d compost if it was available to them. But a half-decade later, too many people are still waiting for that opportunity. Today, only 326 out of 19,000 municipalities offer compost collection beyond yard waste pickup, according to a new report from U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research and Policy Center and the Frontier Group. This lack of opportunity impacts both consumers and well-intentioned manufacturers who want to support composting.  

Take the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s for example. They want to make the linings for their ice cream containers more environmentally friendly. Their plan is to replace their polyethylene plastic lining, which can last lifetimes, with a compostable lining.  But, the company has a problem: a lack of infrastructure. In Burlington, Vermont, where Ben & Jerry’s is located, compostable containers can be properly disposed of in curbside bins. That said, throughout most of the rest of the country, a lack of compost collection means it’s not so easy.

So, why is there so little composting infrastructure in the U.S.? The answer is unclear. Perhaps the benefits are underappreciated. Or maybe the knowledge needed to create good programs is scarce. Municipalities might be deterred by the cost of implementation. But that could be solved by charging higher fees for landfill use (which are often too low) in order to fund compost programs.

Regardless of the reasons, we can and should invest in composting systems across the country as soon as possible. Consider this: Composting all organic waste -- including compostable packaging, food scraps and yard trimmings -- could eliminate nearly one-third of all materials sent to landfills and trash incinerators across the United States. With that in mind, we must put composting top-of-mind as an essential piece of a truly sustainable future.

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