We see these words often: Compostable! Biodegradable! Bioplastic! All of these have emerged on the market as green “solutions” to the single-use plastics crisis. But you can’t solve the single-use plastics problem with other single-use products.
There are a number of reasons compostable, bioplastic or biodegradable containers are actually worse than their single-use plastic alternatives:
- Not all compostable products are safe to compost. The manufacturing of compostable packaging has been largely unregulated, and many have been shown to include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to repel liquid and oils and to contain the food and drinks they hold. PFAS (also known as ‘forever chemicals’) can leach from these containers into the compost. Because of this, many compostable containers are not accepted by compost facilities. It is important to only use certified compostable products.
- Certified compostable containers can only be composted in industrial facilities. It is not hot enough for them to degrade in home composting bins, so they must be sent to an industrial facility. Furthermore, if compost facilities accept compostables, they only want BPI, CMA, TUV, or OK compost certified products. Many products are not clearly marked as certified and these should be thrown out in the trash. Further, when put into the garbage (as they often are, because they are used “on-the-go” and placed in community trash bins) they are GARBAGE, nothing more! They also do not provide the nutrient value of food or yard waste when composted.
- Compostable containers add to consumer confusion. There is already enough confusion around what is recyclable! Bioplastic cups, in particular, create additional layers of confusion. Many consumers assume compostables are recyclable, but they are not. This confusion results in contamination of both compost and recycling streams, because bioplastics look so similar to their plastic counterparts.
- They emit more greenhouse gasses and require more water and energy during production than their single-use plastic equivalents. When you consider the full lifecycle of their production and disposal, compostables have been shown to have a more harmful impact on the environment than other single-use alternatives. While some are made from renewable resources, such as corn and potato starches, these crops consume excessive amounts of water, and fertilizers and pesticides used for these crops can contaminate water supplies.
Sadly, consumers and restaurants are being greenwashed into paying a premium for a sub-premium solution. The good intentions of restaurants are not being realized and the cost is both environmental and economic: compostable containers are always much more expensive for businesses than other single-use alternatives, yet no better a solution. Businesses trying to do the right thing suffer through these costs, and these are businesses that already run on very thin margins.
Encourage your local businesses to minimize single-use products, by participating in campaigns such as Arlington’s “No Plastics Please!” or “Skip the Stuff”, choosing single-use options that are clearly recyclable or choosing reusables for takeout when available.
Step-by-step, we can make choices that truly reduce waste!
Science Daily: Compostable food containers could release PFAS into environment
Upstream Solutions: Why compostables and bioplastics aren’t the answer
A Message from Composters Serving Oregon
BeyondPlastics: The False Promise Of Bioplastics and Compostable Plastics
Popular Science: Your compostable cups and containers aren’t reversing the plastic problem
Natural Resources Council of Maine: 5 Reasons Why We’re Not Crazy About Compostable Food Ware