Organic Labelling - Complexities and Realities
Yes that’s right – not just your normal labeling but ORGANIC labelling! And there’s a dire need for better, clear and simple organic labelling because our compost and organic waste facilities are extremely susceptible to even the smallest human error in classifying a material.
Organic recycling is a delicate process. Once an inorganic material enters a compost pile, that entire pile will be contaminated with chemicals and other materials unhealthy for the soil*. There are a few ways around this issue, each will take a while to put in place, but education and easily recognizable and universal material labelling are needed in order to help keep compost and biodegradable waste in their proper discard piles.
It is easy to become confused when some plastics that look and feel the same can be completely different. Paper coffee cups, for example, are not easily recyclable, biodegradable or compostable do to a thin protection layer of plastic that is impossible for most facilities to process. Whether paper should be recycled or composted in the first place is a complicated enough issue already. Small discrepancies like this and the unclear details of the waste industry must be taught to us, or we will continue make costly mistakes. Thorough education of the public is the first step needed in order to keep our organic waste systems clean.
Labelling that does not make sense to consumers
Moreover, labelling needs to be clearer to consumers hoping to buy biodegradable or compostable materials. When a company says they are ISO9001 certified, a consumer will rarely know exactly what that entails. ISO is the current international standard for quality and sustainable production, but it is more commonly used by businesses to measure manufacturer reliability than by consumers when considering which product to buy. In fact, there really isn’t a universal labelling standard to help consumers. Specific countries have their own specific qualifications and labels, but even those standards are hardly known to consumers. In the USA, for instance, a “compostable” plastic only needs to biodegrade a lenient 60% in 180 days when the material is made of a single type of molecule*. In other words, a product will be able to deem itself biodegradable or compostable depending on the country it is being sold, causing confusion across borders.
Need for internationally recognised standards
Internationally recognized standards and labels need to be put in place to help consumers make informed choices about the waste they are producing and the most responsible way to discard their waste. Universal labels should be created to help consumers know which products are biodegradable and know which biodegradable products are truly safe for compost. New labels like this combined with mass education on the importance of waste management issues will help lead to a greener future.
* International Solid Waste Association. “Biodegradable Plastics.” December 15, 2016.