The Impossible Compostables!

Businesses are increasingly using environmental claims  such as 'being compostable' in order to differentiate themselves and their products from their competitors.  But are such claims substantiated and appropriately qualified. Most of the time they are not as it is quite impossible to be  100% compostable!

What does being compostable mean?
Being compostable simply put is ‘speedy biogradation’ - when the biodegradation process is carried out in a composting facility where conditions (water, humidity, temperature, and lighting) are optimally tuned to speed up the biodegradation process. Products that are truly compostable will not only "disappear", they will become fertilizers known as humus (very dark soil) and no toxicity is released.

Biodegradation is a process by which microorganisms (microbes such as bacteria, fungi or algae) convert materials into biomass, carbon dioxide and water when left by itself in nature. That is, the material becomes food for the microorganisms to feed on. Hence the word "bio". The main material is non petroleum based and is usually made from plant such as corn starch or animal sources. These microorganisms speed up the process of degradation from as short as a day to as long as a year and the products will "disappear" after some time if they are buried in a landfill/compost facility, with no toxic residue.

Is most disposable tableware truly compostable?

  • Most coffee cups and to-go food containers may look/claim to be compostable. But they are lined with very thin plastic to hold food and drink. This plastic coating breaks down into tiny plastic fragments which do not disappear and produce toxic waste. Consequently, they contaminate the finished compost as well as the soil where that compost is used. Worms and insects will ingest them in the soil; and when they get washed out with the rain, they feed into rivers, lakes, and oceans and impact marine ecosystems.
  • In addition, disposable plastic tableware is for one time use only and they are then trashed. As they are non-biodegradable, they are never disposed off, thereby adding to the garbage pile in the landfill on a permanent basis and polluting the whole environment.
  • Even Bioplastics are not always truly compostable. They must meet the international standards that define compostable materials to be included in composting
  • Compostability and biodegradability are not based on the feedstock of the product but based on the chemical signature that is, the way the plastics are put together. The final product and any inks or labels used, need to be tested and certified using international standards in their own right as being biodegradable or compostable.
  • Different compost facilities use different processes. Some have trouble even with bioplastics. In some facilities, the plastic-coated packaging get separated and no visible plastic is left in the compost, while  others are concerned that the nearly invisible tiny fragments of plastic will ultimately ends up contaminating the environment .
  • Screening out the compostable items means extra steps and costs.
  • A product is either 100% compostable or it is not as most composting facilities cannot separate the biomass from the plastic effectively.
  • If compostable plastics do not end up in the composting facility, then there is nothing green about them. In fact they end up in landfills and produce methane emissions.
  • To confuse matters further, many compostable plastics are made to look like real plastics and end up in the recycling bin where they cause problems for the plastic recycling process.

Hence the Impossible Compostable! 

  • Given that compostable products need compositing facilities, where conditions (water, humidity, temperature, and lighting) are optimally tuned to bring about a speedy biodegradation, composting is a hopeless reach for most individuals that want to help the environment through responsible consumption of material, which makes this standard seem difficult and misplaced.
  • Even if the claims of being compostable, biodegradable and recyclable are true, given the complexities and realities, there is more likelihood of a biodegradable packaging ending in a landfill and producing a harmless non-toxic humus by-product, then a compostable or recyclable packaging being disposed off in the right way!

What could be a simpler sustainable solution?

Simply a 100% biodegradable foodware such as Element tableware which need NOT be:

  • recycled and hence eliminating the chance of landing in the wrong recycling bin and facility. [Anyway, most recyclable foodware becomes contaminated once it has food scrapping];
  • Sent to special composting facilities which are not common and or land in the wrong type of composting facility which is unable to separate the plastic  fragments from the other materials components hence contaminating  the environment;

but can instead be disposed off as eco-friendly food waste to biodegrade under the right environment within 120 days.