Are “Compostable” Products a Fraud, Or What?

May 14, 2020 § 2 Comments

Have you ever received a product in “compostable” packaging and felt good about it? Me too! But recently I realized, maybe I shouldn’t.

I got to thinking about compostables while on a food run the other day with my daughter Ilsa: we were picking up a dozen bagels from a local shop and she asked for a smoothie to go. When we checked to be sure the cup was recyclable  it appeared to be even better than recyclable. It was something called “Greenware,” and a cheerful message across the bottom of the cup read: “yay! i’m compostable so don’t trash me already”!

What a friendly cup!

Nice! Compostable Plastic! It was a cup that looked like plastic, felt like plastic, but, as I discovered after we got home and I looked it up, was actually made from “Ingeo,” the trademark name for a “PLA resin derived from plants.” “PLA” stands for polylactic acid which comes from corn, sugarcane or beets.

Ilsa was impressed, but then said: Waitaminit. If it is possible to make compostable disposables, why don’t all take away places use them? I explained that eco-friendly products made with natural, renewable materials like bamboo are usually more expensive, so using them is something the company has to believe provides “added value” to their brand for customers. Which is to say, it’s a reason to patronize their shop as opposed to somewhere else.

And for sure, we are those customers if anyone is: Ilsa and I are precisely that demographic who are willing and able to go out of our way, and pay a few cents more, to “do the right thing.” I feel very fortunate to have that option of choice.

But how often do we make an assumption that something labeled “GREEN!” is automatically the “right thing”?

After the smoothie had been drunk and I had washed the transparent cup, I wondered: does this very, VERY sturdy looking thing really go in our compost bin? It just didn’t feel right throwing something so… so plastic-resembling in with all our squishy banana peels and grainy coffee grounds.

Searching for reassurance I looked it up, and that’s when I was surprised. Greenware “compostable cups” are not compostable… in a backyard compost. Their website explains: “These products are compostable in actively managed municipal or industrial facilities, which may not be available in your area. Not suitable for backyard composting. (emphasis mine)”

There are other brands out there of similar products: Ecotainer is another one I’ve encountered; in the UK there’s Vegware. All the websites contain the same message: Compostable? Yes! But hold on! Don’t try this at home.

(It reminded me a lot of the recent existential debate I had over plastic wrap: Recyclable? Yes! Will anyone recycle it? No! So if in reality no one will recycle it… can one really call it “recyclable”?)

So let me make sure I understand this. I’m supposed to get my one-use, takeaway cup, and as the name indicates, I take it away. And then when I’m done I… bring it to the nearest industrial composting facility? Oh sure, I think there’s one of those at the mall in between the Hallmark Store and the movie theater.

To be fair, yes, in-store they have a bin for compostables, which presumably goes to the mythical industrial composting facility. If you consumed the drink in-store (presumably during a non-COVID-19 time when people did such wild and crazy things) then this all might make sense. But in this scenario surely it’s even better to have the vendor provide a real glass cup that gets washed and reused.

Alas, the point of the take away cup is to Take. It. Away. Am I really supposed to drive the thirty minutes back to town to return my compostable cup? And if I did wouldn’t I get pulled over by the Irony Police?

It gets worse. Although the cup is labeled with a recycling code number (#7), the Greenware website also explains it is not really a normal #7 plastic made of things such as acrylic, polycarbonate or nylon, so it should not be put with single stream recycling, lest it contaminate actual plastic recyclables. What do they recommend instead?

If a commercial composting facility is not available, please dispose responsibly in a trash receptacle.

So it goes to… the landfill. Where, despite the fact that it is made from plants, means it never degrades. And Greenware knows this. Again from Greenware’s website:

The sealed anaerobic environment of a common landfill severely limits the ability for compostable materials to break down. Oxygen and microbial activity are necessary for the breakdown of all compostable items and unfortunately is not present in most landfills.

To recap: You’ve come home with this awesome good feeling about being kind to the planet with your better choices. Yet, when you discard your feel-good cup, you end up either contaminating recycling or adding to the landfill.

It’s enough to make a regular recyclable plastic cup look downright sustainable by comparison.

If you think all this is confusing or misleading to customers, it turns out we aren’t the only ones. I called up the shop where the cup had come from and asked the employee who answered if I could put the Greenware smoothie cup into my home compost pile. She said, “I don’t know… I think you can.”

Now, just to be clear, I love my bagel shop. And right now, in particular, I applaud them for being open, heroically feeding hungry, pandemic-panicked patrons, not to mention answering weird, random questions from some crazy lady on the phone. But if the very people who work at the shop can’t tell you about the cup, I ask you: what good is it?

Is it me or are all the objects getting unnervingly friendly?

Then another development: yesterday a package arrived at our house in a flexible mailer that had a familiarly cheerful message emblazoned upon it: Hey! I’m a 100% Compostable Mailer.

As you can imagine, I was suspicious. First of all: why are all these inanimate objects talking to me? Second: why are they all so friendly? Third: Compostable?! Yeah, right.

But as it turns out these mailers— made by a company called Noissue— really, truly are what they say they are. Again- they look like plastic, feel like plastic, but when you are done with them you can throw them right into the backyard compost bin. In six months there will be no trace of them- I learned from the Noissue website that there is a technical term for this capability: home compostable.

Green-washing is a very real thing. Just because something presents itself as an earth-friendly alternative, doesn’t mean it actually is one. Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t all just so busy feeling good about trying to be better to the planet, we don’t stop to realize we might actually be being worse to the planet instead?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it shouldn’t require a host of Google searches to get to the heart of whether a product is what it claims to be, but until we get better regulation and public awareness around such issues, the onus will still be on the consumer to ferret this stuff out on their own. We could all benefit from clearer, legally defined terminology that recognizes that between “industrial compostable” and “home compostable” there is a BIG difference.

So, are compostable products a fraud? Noissue is clearly the real deal and kudos to them for walking the walk. As for products like Greenware, Ecotainer and Vegware, I’d like to think that they are well intentioned. But the problem is that using these products alone isn’t enough, because using them improperly can be worse than not using them at all. Informing the consumer and the vendor about what a product can and can’t do is key, and obviously that isn’t happening enough. In cities that offer curbside compost pick-up, these products probably make more sense than they do elsewhere. But there are an awful lot of places that don’t fit that description. Maybe you live in one. I do.

Until the pandemic recedes and we get back to being able to bring in our own reusable containers for take-out, I’d rather choose a recyclable plastic container over products that are only compostable in an industrial setting. At least then I know it’s part of a circular economy, and not destined for a landfill.

Then I’d know I’m doing something real, with intention, and not just accepting the veneer of sustainability as fact. Sometimes, when you peek beneath the surface, that shiny green veneer? Turns out to have been just a mirage after all.

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§ 2 Responses to Are “Compostable” Products a Fraud, Or What?

  • Val Robson says:

    Another great post Eve. I love your writing style – you had me laughing out loud several times despite the seriousness of the topic!

    All very interesting – like you I have been very suspicious about drinks bottles that claim to be compostable as I eye them on the supermarket shelf while thinking it is about to disintegrate before my eyes if the stock rotation in the store is not great and the oldest are always left at the back. In my dreams apparently now I’d read your post!

    I am equally suspicious of those wrappings for parcels as I do believe they compost as it sometimes appears like they have started doing so during transit. I then wonder just how protected are my goods within?! And is that some non-compostable sticky tape they’ve used to keep it together long enough to survive the journey?

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