With more talk every day of plastic bans across the country (and the globe), you may also notice the presence of more eco-alternatives on your grocery store shelves. Coffee cups, forks, plates, and even straws marked “compostable.” If you’re wondering what exactly this means (and can you throw that corn-based plastic cup into your backyard compost?) you’re not alone.
“It can be very confusing,” zero waste blogger and eco-entrepreneurer, Lauren Singer, tells us. “The biggest problem with products labeled ‘compostable’ is that these forks and cups are still made of PLA plastic—a biobased plastic derived from corn—which is only industrially compostable.” However, if these items are not being composted in the proper facilities, the term loses its meaning altogether. “Places like coffee shops may use compostable cups because they’re trying to be eco-friendly,” explains Singer. “But if there is no industrial composting in place, they will still end up in the landfill.”
So how do you know if you’re actually making a greener choice? “What I would tell consumers is to know your program. Know what your city recycles, and what plastics can be recycled,“ says Bridget Anderson, deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability at the New York City Department of Sanitation. “Sometimes we find regular plastics inside of our [city compost] bins and these don’t break down.” In other words, knowing what is compostable and what is recyclable can help you avoid contaminating the entire process. If you’re not sure if your compostable cup will end up in the right facility, Anderson says stick to regular plastics as these can at least be recycled.
Singer thinks of it this way: “Industrial composting is a very mechanical process for more rigid compostables (like those sugarcane-based plastic cups). Backyard composting is a more natural breaking down of organic materials (like food scraps, newspapers, and leaves)."
Often times, the terms ‘biodegrade’ and ‘compostable’ are used interchangably—and incorrectly. “Compostable has been turned into a marketing term meaning ‘it will break down’”, says Singer. However, in a landfill, this is not the case. “A landfill is like a vacuum seal. The pressure and density of the landfill doesn't allow any oxygen to get in so nothing can break down naturally. And instead of releasing carbon dioxide, the landfill releases methane.” she explains.
For fellow zero waste blogger and mother of two, Anne-Marie Bonneau, the simplest solution to avoid confusing your green terms is to opt for reusables. “Even for bioplastics, a lot of corn and resources are still needed create them, only to be used once and thrown out." she explains. "With a lot more companies jumping on the bandwagon of eco-friendly products, it can be very confusing figuring out what is compostable or biodegradable. And you shouldn’t need a PhD in science in shop!” In short, if you can, skip that compostable cup, and choose one that you can reuse.