Compostable Plastic

You could buy 1000 bio-based, compostable, Natur-Ware forks for $44.95 online, but should you? After the picnic is over, what do you do with the forks? How do you make sure they get composted? And is compostable plastic the answer to our plastic waste problems? Here’s a quick look at a complicated question.

Not an environmentally friendly option

We want to use the most environmentally-friendly plastic available, but the options are confusing: bio-based, biodegradable, compostable? We use these terms interchangeably, though they mean different things, sometimes. Bio-based plastic is made from organic material, like corn starch. There’s a huge variety of bio-based plastic, but it doesn’t all biodegrade. Biodegradable usually refers to petroleum-based plastics that are coated with an additive that enables microorganisms to break them down. Biodegradable plastic can take decades to break down, and toxic residue might still remain. Compostable plastic is made from organic materials, like bio-based plastics, and can be turned into soil-enriching, toxin-free humus after time in an industrial composting facility.

The Biodegradable Products Institute certified our Natur-ware forks as compostable. Each fork is stamped with the word “compostable” to avoid confusing them with other plastic forks. I asked Lisa at Natur-Ware where my post-picnic forks could be composted. Lisa said they would not break down in the ocean or my backyard compost bin, but only in a carefully managed industrial composting facility, Compost facilities shred materials coming in then control moisture, oxygen and the ratio of carbon to nitrogen in an aerobic environment to keep the bacteria and fungus that turn our forks into humus happy. Unfortunately, there is no industrial composting facility that will take my used forks within a hundred miles of BlueTube headquarters. Our forks can last as long as the petroleum-based forks we want to avoid if they aren’t composted in an industrial composting facility.

There are plenty of industrial composting facilities, but many take only take yard waste. Yard waste is simple to compost. Anyone who has left a pile of leaves in their yard knows that if left long enough, the leaves will eventually turn to dark brown, earthy-smelling humus. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans produced 35 million tons of yard waste in 2015, and 61% was composted. Composting gets more complicated when food and compostable plastic are added.

We produced 40 million tons of food waste in 2015, but most of this (95%) ended up in landfills or incinerators. Only 5% of our food waste was composted. Some industrial composting facilities take yard waste plus pre-consumer vegetable waste. When post-consumer food waste, the stuff we scrape off our plates, is added, pathogens must be controlled. When meat and dairy are added, the compost pile smells and attracts vermin. When compostable plastic is added, it takes more time to produce humus. Bacteria go through banana peels and apple cores much faster than they can digest compostable forks. The longer a composting cycle takes, the less money the facility makes selling humus. Despite the challenges, there are facilities that take compostable plastic, post-consumer food waste and yard waste. Go to www.FindaComposter.com, put in your zip code and see it there’s an industrial composting facility near you.

San Francisco leads the nation in composting. Residents have separated their food waste (compostable plastics included) from recyclables and trash since 2009. People in San Francisco have a financial incentive to reduce landfilled trash because their garbage cans are more expensive to empty than their compost and recycling containers. By 2020, San Francisco aims to shrink landfilled trash to nothing and earn an impressive zero-waste status.

Private composting companies are going into business in many cities. For $29 a week, Compost Now in Raleigh, North Carolina will pick up food scraps and compostable plastic from your doorstep and deliver finished compost to your yard.

Some communities offer residents subsidized or free compost bins. Municipalities save money on waste hauling and landfill tipping fees. Residents have greener and healthier gardens, lighter and better-smelling garbage cans, and the satisfaction of knowing their organic waste isn’t festering in the landfill, producing global-warming methane. Residents won’t get compostable forks to compost though.

If you live in San Francisco, Raleigh or any other composting city, buy the forks. But without an industrial composting facility nearby, forget about compostable plastic for now.

There’s still loads we can do to help solve our plastic-waste mess. Want ideas? Carry reusable cutlery and eliminate the need for disposable forks. Help clean up the plastic waste in our environment. Grab a used plastic bag from the BlueTube on your beach, pick up plastic and throw it away. Keep informed with BlueTube’s Trash Talk.

Choose to reuse!