Reality Check: The Industrial Composting Gap
Is human nature simply to blame for our waste problem? Provided with a cheap, easy option, most don’t ask questions, and in the case of compostable plastics, the answers are often anything but simple.
Unfortunately, the plastic waste problem has become a climate change crisis, and consumers are noticing. In an effort to combat this, companies are creating disposable goods from “Compostable” materials, like cutlery, cups, straws, and other packaging. Though only 1% of all plastics made, the trend has caught steam in sustainable consumerism as restaurants have begun switching to these bioplastic options to address their carbon footprint.
Advertised as "Compostable", these products are largely made out of plant-based alternatives to fossil fuels, helping reduce CO2 emissions during production, but their impact on the mounting ocean waste crisis is more uncertain. Every year, over 8 million tons of plastic waste are dumped into the ocean, and with a boom in organic waste, composting looks like an excellent solution. Yet most of these products are actually Industrially Compostable, of which less than 20% make it to the proper facilities. What's worse, many of these facilities are closing their doors to bioplastics entirely. So how can these alternatives truly be better for the environment?
Contrary to the common consumer’s expectation, “Industrially Compostable” products will not simply disappear after use, nor will they break down in most home composts with organic scraps. Though many petroleum plastics take centuries to degrade or never break down, tests have shown bioplastics can still take decades to fully biodegrade in a landfill.
In general, compostable products require conditions like high moisture, temperatures over 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and cycles of airflow in order to completely biodegrade into organic byproducts. Industrially compostable plastics require higher temperatures and industrial grinders to expedite their degradation. Unfortunately, this level of attention just isn't realistic thus far. As of 2009, there were only 42 commercial composting facilities in the United States; in 2019, there were just over 120 facilities nationwide, and noticeably less are accepting compostable plastic products (Biocycle Compost Science Journal).
The truth is, of the very few industrial compost facilities that exist in the US, less want compostable plastics because their white appearance is practically indistinguishable from traditional plastic. The result? Major organic recycling facilities rejecting bioplastic products, instead sorting them into landfills with traditional plastic waste. In this writer’s 24 attempts to find accepting compost facilities in California, over 75% responding as not interested in, or actively refusing bioplastics. Most likened the process of separating “compostable” waste to searching for a needle in a haystack.
It seems the trend is widespread. Oregon Composting Services recently pressured the Department of Environmental Quality to send a letter to businesses and consumers telling them to stop sending compostable packaging and serviceware.
So how do we ensure these disposable products actually break down and achieve the mission of reducing the mountains of plastic ending up in our landfills and oceans? Developing backyard/landfill degradable materials seems to be the key. Companies like GreenTek Packaging LLC, a member of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator at La Kretz Campus, are working from the ground up to address this. Partnering with local farmers engineers, and chemical experts, they are working to ensure plant based biopolymers become the solution to the current crisis that inspires optimism.
In a recent iHemp Michigan podcast, Executive Jordan Hinshaw addressed the elephant in the room. “Greenwashing threatens to paint an image of despair around the possibility for renewable plastics, but the advances in backyard compostable biopolymers are a reason for great optimism. We’re dedicated to carrying the torch of this science across the necessary milestones to close the composting loop, and everyday we are more enthused.”
GreenTek’s foray into the food industry with utensils made from hemp has gone through multiple iterations to achieve the functionality, proper degradation, and cost effectiveness consumers desire. Backed by the LA Cleantech Innovators’ Program, the company has continued to grow on its journey to cut down on petroleum based plastics despite their upward arching demand. The team sees agricultural-waste sources like hemp stalks, coffee hulls and barley biomass as huge opportunities to establish circular economies that reward farmers and protect our environment.
Efforts like this are the bridge to better alternatives. Undoubtedly, this issue will not be solved overnight, but a more effective strategy will earn the trust and enthusiasm of consumers eagerly craving change to the current predicament.
Prithvi Chauhan, Staff Writer, Environmentalist, CSULB Master's Candidate
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