Are compostable products the answer?

WRITTEN BY Bronagh Loughlin

August 7, 2023

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Are compostable products the answer?

Bronagh Loughlin

7 Aug, 2023

There’s no denying we are quite reckless when it comes to our use and consumption of plastic. According to the UN, the world is generating around 400 million tonnes of plastic waste annually to keep up with demand. 

Unfortunately, a whopping 60 per cent of this ends up in landfills and our natural environment, where it poses further threats to the planet. It’s clear we need to break our dependency on plastic, and with that, it’s no surprise alternatives have been developed.

The big advantage of these alternatives is that they are ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ which most of us understand as a product that will decompose or break down without negatively affecting the planet. 

However, when we think back to the 80s, when we weren’t placing as much pressure on the Earth, our grannies weren’t purchasing their milk in a compostable carton. Instead, they were receiving glass milk bottles at the door, which they would rinse out when finished and return to their local store. 

Going back to our roots is the strategy

Working to become a more sustainable society and driving the circular economy is not about reinventing the wheel; it’s about going back to our roots. It’s about making things simple and easy and not putting so much pressure on the consumer. 

With that being the case, it poses the question: why are we on the road to alternatives and not simply curbing plastic and packing use and making consumers’ lives a lot easier? Besides this, it is also important to reference that these buzzwords, ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’, are often used interchangeably. 

Most of us are not entirely educated on what goes into each bin and often make mistakes along the way. Therefore, it’s likely these compostable products end up in the wrong bin because people do not understand where they are to go. Additionally, there is the issue around how effectively they break down and the impact they have on compost.

Whilst the bioplastic fork and brown paper takeaway container sound like innovative inventions, one could argue we are just substituting one single-use product for another. In that case, the real problem is not just single-use plastic but single-use products as a whole. 

Compostable products aren’t as effective as you might think

A research paper published in Frontiers on the impact and effectiveness of biodegradable and compostable plastics in UK home composting finds most plastics labelled as ‘home compostable’ don’t work. The paper shares that as much as 60 per cent fail to disintegrate after six months. It also shares that around 10 per cent of people can effectively compost at home. 

For the remaining 90 per cent of the population, the best place to dispose of compostable plastics is in a landfill. However, here they slowly break down and release methane. The study shares that if compostable plastic finds its way into food waste, it contaminates and prevents the recycling process. Therefore, the real solution here is not making more compostable products but instead, actively using less plastic. 

It should also be noted that often the environmental impacts of creating compostable products can be higher than traditional products, depending on how the materials are sourced, the packaging, and the production process. While many are low-impact, a portion are high-impact. Brands are not transparent enough to indicate whether a compostable product has a high or low impact on the planet, which makes it difficult for consumers to make the more eco-friendly choice.

Final thoughts: are compostable products the answer?

We cannot continue to sell products without having the infrastructure in place to adequately deal with the waste. The report assured that most people are confused about what to put in which bin and labels. However, even with this lack of education, a large majority (85 per cent) remained enthusiastic about purchasing compostable plastics. 

To identify whether a product is genuinely compostable, it must, under certain conditions, break down within a specific timeframe, like 90 days. Additionally, the products must be certified by a reputable agency. However, customers often do not know to look for this additional information or monitor whether the product is composting and who is to say they should have to? The responsibility here lies on producers and manufacturers to create products that do degrade and do not cause further harm. With this in mind, a lot of compostable products are nothing more than greenwashing. 

Ultimately, compostable products should be able to degrade into compost at a similar rate to naturally compostable materials. They should leave no visible residue behind. Compostable products that genuinely break down have their place in the transition to a more sustainable society, but we cannot forget the core priority here, which is to reduce plastic and waste. Going back to reducing and reusing is key, plus they are big money savers. 

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