Earth Day 2020: Why Compostable Plastics Are Not Sustainable: Page 2 of 2

In another posting on March 3, Barrett published translated commentary from a Dutch documentary, The Documentary that Killed Compostable Plastics in the Netherlands (De Monitor), on the topic of compostability. Two people are talking and one asks, “If it says ‘compostable,’ are these packages being composted?” “Yes,” replied the other. “It says 100% compostable.”

We all know that isn’t true, which was the point of the documentary. A package can claim to be 100% compostable, but that is only true if a composting facility will take that package. Getting the package to a composting facility also requires some type of curbside pickup scheme. Otherwise that “100% compostable” package is bound for the landfill.

In another commentary, Barrett explained that there is nothing about the compostability of plastics that lends itself to being circular. “In a circular economy, we try to keep resources in the cycle for as long as possible,” said the article. “Biodegradation of plastic is the decomposition of material into carbon dioxide and water.” The European standard of compostability is that “plastic should be 90% perished after 12 weeks. This means that the standard leaves room for 10% of material that does not have to perish.”

Tesco, a UK grocery store chain, recently released its new packaging strategy, and the company is taking a lot of heat from the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA). Why? Because Tesco has finally seen the light and is dropping all packaging labeled as “compostable.” Tesco wants all of its packaging to be recyclable. For plastics, it means that PET, HDPE, and PP qualify but compostable PLA, oxy/oxodegradable, and black plastic are not allowed because “customers cannot easily recycle them.” The goal, according to Tesco, is to “help colleagues and customers use less plastic and recycle more.”

Tesco needs to be commended for its courage in calling out compostable plastic for being non-compostable, mostly because of a lack of facilities that will take so-called “compostable” plastic. The grocery chain recognized the greater good in reducing packaging and using recycling as the primary way to capture value in waste plastics.

While some plastic bag and container manufacturers continue to promote compostability — even promising home compostability in backyard bins — plastic does not decompose like a banana peel or grass. That fact is finally being recognized by many companies that had added “compostability” to their list of sustainable options for plastic packaging. There are more — and better — options than “compostable” plastics, which, in reality are not.

Image: Fotoschlick/Adobe Stock

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