Are Compostables Causing More Harm than Good?
by Re:Dish, July 2021
Companies in the US are under increasing social, financial, and legislative pressure to work towards environmental sustainability in their products, services, supply chains, and operations. In addition to increased pressure to disclose and meet ESG goals, workforce studies like this one conducted by tech giant HP repeatedly confirm that a majority of employees, especially the younger generations, now view sustainability as table stakes.
Greening employee dining operations is a highly visible and tangible way for an organization to demonstrate its sustainability commitments so it is no surprise that these pressures have translated into foodservice operators making “greener” purchasing decisions. One indicator is the number of employee dining operations going “plastic-free” by switching to compostable foodservice packaging.
While the intentions are good, the problem is that switching
Unlike food in a compost bin, compostables don't break down easily on their own.
to compostable products has unintended consequences, including human health concerns and increased lifecycle greenhouse emissions. Human health should always be the top concern, so let’s start there:
Compostable foodservice packaging often contains harmful chemicals. You may have heard about PFAS. This chemical, and others like it, are often used to create a grease and moisture barrier keeping compostable products from getting soggy and falling apart during use. This has been in the news in recent years because the Center for Environmental Health released a study revealing that a majority of the plates, bowls, clamshells and multi-compartment food tray they tested were fluorinated.
Not only is this product harmful to people, but it never degrades which means it will stay in our bodies and the environment forever. Hence why it is labeled a “forever chemical.” The bottom line is that, if you are committed to compostable products, read this guide to help you make a safer, healthier purchasing decision.
Now let’s look downstream, or what happens after the product is used:
Compostable products almost always end up in landfills: According to the EPA, only 8.5% of municipal solid waste was composted in 2018 and most of what is composted is yard trimmings and food waste, not compostable foodservice products. There are no publicly available numbers we are aware of reporting organics collection in commercial office spaces so let’s keep it simple. If your organization does not have an organic collection program available throughout the building, the compostable products you are serving are all ending up in the landfill and that’s just as bad if not worse than putting plastic in the landfill.
Compostable products don’t break down on their own: You may think that even if compostable products end up in a landfill, no big deal because they will compost naturally and become dirt. However, composting requires specific conditions like high heat and moisture, only found in specialized industrial facilities. The reality is that most compostable products that end up in landfills sit there, intact, for several years. Or, worse, they begin to break down anaerobically and generate methane gases instead of the carbon dioxide released during composting. This is bad because methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than is CO2.
Composting facilities don’t want these products anyway. Some will take them and some won’t. Why? There are several reasons but a major one is they cannot tell the difference between products that are safe to add to the compost mix and those that are not. None want PFAS contamination, which would then contaminate the compost, the plants and water exposed to the compost, and anything that eats or drinks those plants and water. Organics processors going for USDA or other organic certifications have to be even pickier about what ends up in their mix and will often reject all packaging products because it is too cumbersome to identify and sort out which ones will degrade quickly enough and not leave behind residual chemicals.
“The benefits of recycling and composting are based on a series of assumptions that may not match the reality of how these systems operate and impacts of the materials that flow through them.”
– Upstream’s 2021 report “Reuse Wins”
Now let’s look upstream. Another common misconception is that manufacturing compostable products results in a smaller environmental footprint than does making plastic products:
Creating single-use compostable goods is harmful for the environment. Most compostable products are made from agricultural by-products such as bagasse (from sugarcane), wheat straw, corn, rapidly renewable materials like bamboo, or recycled paper products. This is generally a good thing, especially when those products would otherwise be burned in a pile on the farm, and “feels” better than extracting petroleum from the ground. Unfortunately, creating plastics from petroleum and petroleum byproducts is extremely efficient from a lifecycle environmental standpoint. For example, it takes a lot more energy and water to process raw bagasse into a material that can be used for a compostable product than it does to create the plastic used to make a product of the same size and function. That means a larger carbon footprint in your supply chain.
Single-use is not sustainable. It may sound like we are advocating for single-use plastic over compostable products. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The truth is that companies using any single-use containers that are labeled as ‘environmentally-friendly’, including recyclable and compostable products, are being misled. Any product that is designed to be thrown away after a single use, whether it’s made from plastic, paper, metal, or plants, is not a sustainable option. So what’s the solution? Reuse.
Reuse is not only significantly better for the environment, but also less complicated operationally, and can actually reduce costs. The bottom line is that for companies that actually want to make a difference, there is no reason to not make the switch to reusables.