More and more, we see the words “compostable” or “biodegradable” on products. Do those words really mean anything or are they just greenwashing? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Composting is still relatively new in the mainstream with many communities now providing a compost bin along with their trash and recycling bins, and others opening up restrictions on backyard composting.As Americans, we throw away a lot of food and other compostable waste, in fact, compostables make up for a large amount of our municipal solid waste. A sad fact when you consider that all that organic material in a landfill just adds up to more methane emissions.
Biodegradable is the trickiest term. Technically, it just means that the item can be broken down, in a relatively short period, into its base compounds. The tricky part is that many companies use biodegradable when they mean compostable. Still others use biodegradable when they mean the item will break up into itty bitty pieces. Products made from corn or sugarcane are truly biodegradable, and may also be compostable. Some plastics are even biodegradable. Sound confusing?
Composting is essentially going through the same growing pains that recycling did in its infancy. Conflicting messages, unclear terminology, and inconsistent municipal programs confuse the average consumer.
The biggest point of confusion? To-go containers and cups. They look like paper; does that mean they’re compostable? What about the plastic coating that keeps the liquid from seeping through the paper?
It really depends. Some municipalities will accept plastic-coated compostable items in curbside compost bins, others will not, so check with your local provider or compost facility. One thing is certain, they don’t belong in your backyard bin; those compostable plastics require very high heat to break down and the typical backyard bin just won’t get there.
If you can’t put these things in your backyard compost, and your city won’t compost them, then what? Sadly, it means the trash bin. Compostable plastics don’t belong in the recycling stream either, as they can contaminate the recycling process.
As a consumer, that means your best bet is education. Find out what your local facilities will and won’t take then start looking at what you buy and use. It may not be possible to completely eliminate all plastic and disposable items from your life, but it’s certainly possible to reduce what you do use and to make better choices based on what services are available to you.
With enough consumer pressure, in time, better products and processes will become available and this will be old news. Until then, eliminate or reduce where possible and when it’s not, make the wisest choices you can – and be sure to tell the companies and manufacturers why you are shopping the way you are. Those little steps will add up to big changes.
Inspired Habitat is written by local environmentally-conscious lifestyle website Bambeco, a company committed to advancing a more sustainable world.
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