As zero waste and sustainability issues arise, so does the tide of commercial products ready to capitalize on the market. Before we get excited about companies slapping an “eco-friendly” green badge on their labels, let’s talk about the truth behind greenwashing on compostable products.
I want to cover four main points as we discuss biodegradable and compostable products.
What's in this post
A quick overview
We’ll dive more into the definition of compostable – because there are differences! – and biodegradable later, but to start:
- degradable: an item’s ability to break down. This doesn’t consider when it’s natural or not; after all, microplastics are just degraded plastic items.
- biodegradable: an item’s ability to break down and go back to nature, which requires enough heat, moisture, and oxygen. As a selling point for products, the term alone means nothing – the item could take thousands of years to break down.
- compostable: composting is an accelerated form of biodegradation in a managed environment that will provide nutrients back to the earth. Items can be at-home compostable (AKA tossed in your own pile) or industrial/commercial compostable (requires a very high level of heat).
With that out of the way, here are four points to think about when considering compostable products…
Labels mean nothing when it heads to a landfill
Remember when we said there were certain conditions to be met for an organic item to break down? Well, those conditions (heat, moisture, and oxygen) don’t exist in landfills. Or at least not to the degree that organic matter can break down in a natural way.
As William J. Rathje, author and landfill scientist (what a job!), explains in a 1992 interview:
Rathje recalled an order of guacamole he recently unearthed. ‘Almost as good as new, it sat next to a newspaper apparently thrown out the same day. The date was 1967.’
So not only are we not getting the nutrients back from the organic material, but we’re also seeing the detrimental effects of anaerobic decomposition. For those who blocked science classes out of their minds, that’s decomposition without oxygen.
The huge problem with this process is that it releases methane, which is over 20x more potent than CO2. With estimates saying 20-30% of landfills are organic materials, that’s a lot of wasted potential – and greenhouse gas emissions.
So buying compostable products without actually composting them is quite problematic and can actually do great harm to our environment. Avoid the impulse to buy compostable alternatives to plastic items – do without whenever possible. Buying “eco” products without the proper infrastructure is still damaging to the environment.
And even if you’re one of the few with home composting options, the fact is…
Companies are trying to confuse you with greenwashing
Here’s something that’s surely shocking to no one: companies are trying to use people’s interest in sustainability to sell them shit they don’t need that isn’t as green as it seems. Greenwashing around compostable/biodegradable products is rampant.
So let’s talk greenwashing around the specific issue of compostable vs. biodegradable products.
The compostable definition means that something can decompose in a compost site and requires three things:
- 90% disintegration in 90 days
- 60% conversion to CO2 within 180 days (biodegradable)
- item leaves no toxicity in the soil
ADDITIONALLY be aware I said it can decompose in a compost site, ie. not at home. Most often you’ll see: “Check locally, as these do not exist in many communities. Not suitable for backyard composting.” They’re telling you they’re producing a product that isn’t sustainable for most.
On the other side, the biodegradable label makes no such promises. Saying an item is biodegradable means nothing; that bio-plastic straw you feel good about could take 100 years to break down, making it just as harmful to ocean life as a plastic straw. A rock is technically biodegradable, but does it really matter with such a large time frame?
So the next time you grab a pack of “eco-friendly” forks for your BBQ, be sure to check the label and see whether they’re labeled as compostable. If they’re just biodegradable, it’s better to ignore the greenwashing and find another alternative. And speaking of compostable products…
Many “compostable” products are not at-home compostable
The compostable definition may mean less than you think…
Do you have a product marketed as compostable in your house?
Check the label – if it’s purely organic material, it’ll break down easily and may say “in-home” compostable. If it’s a bio-plastic, you’ll hopefully see a label that says something like “for commercial/industrial composting”. (Remember: the label “biodegradable” by itself means absolutely nothing.)
Industrial composting is great because it can deal with all sorts of items like meat, oil, and the bio-plastics that make up compostable cutlery, bowls, etc. The system is larger, hotter, and more efficient than at-home composting.
But this is where companies’ environmentalism once again hovers close to greenwashing. Many companies sell commercially compostable products without considering if they’re selling to markets where commercial composting is an option.
The cost of taking these items to a facility is really high for an individual consumer. So all those “compostable” plates and cutlery you used for your party are going to end up in the landfill; or sitting whole in your home composting system for years.
Here is a map of all the major composting facilities available in the US, check to see if there is one near you that accepts items from individuals.
And if you say “well, that’s OK – I’ll just let it break down at home”… most estimates peg that process taking at least a year.
If we’re talking something like those compostable K-cups that we use once daily… how many people really have the patience/space to hoard hundreds as they slowly break down?
“Eco” products still require lots of resources to make
Biodegradable or compostable products seem like a good switch; and in fact, they may be. They aren’t oil-derived and can be given new life as nutrients in compost if you have the appropriate way of disposing of them. But they’re not perfect.
In fact, a 2010 study found this:
bioplastics production resulted in greater amounts of pollutants, due to the fertilizers and pesticides used in growing the crops and the chemical processing needed to turn organic material into plastic. The bioplastics also contributed more to ozone depletion than the traditional plastics, and required extensive land use.
And this gets down to the heart of the matter: we’re in a system with imperfect options and it’s very difficult to consider whether the reduction of microplastics in the environment outweighs the polluting effects of these bioplastics.
The fact is, these compostable products are typically just another way for companies to sell you something you don’t need. The best option? Don’t buy them at all.
Worrying over the compostable definition matters less when you’re not consuming the products!
It might not always be possible, but avoid the urge to switch from a “typical” product to an “eco” product. Consider whether you really need the swap or if you can get by with practicing the first R of zero waste: refuse.
More often than not, if we take a moment to curb our natural tendency to buy our way out of a problem, we can find an alternative solution.