Plastic vs. Compostable Packaging

At the Green Mo’ we strive to be a leader in environmental sustainability. That’s why when we started offering our food to-go, we chose compostable packaging over conventional plastic packaging. But with so many different labels and certifications out there, recycling and composting can get confusing for consumers. This article will attempt to clear up some of that confusion and explain why the Green Mo’ chooses compostable packaging over conventional plastic packaging.

The Problems with Conventional Plastic

There is a wide range of problems with conventional plastic:

 

All plastic that has ever been created still exists today.

Plastic never disappears.

Plastic cannot biodegrade; it only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. This means that all plastic that has ever been created still exists today.

What about recycling?

Only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled (1). This means that the vast majority of all plastic produced either ends up in landfills, is incinerated or pollutes the natural environment. It’s worth remembering that even when plastic is recycled, this only delays, rather than avoids, its ultimate disposal – recycled plastic is of lesser quality than virgin plastic (2). Recycling is also an expensive, complicated and resource intensive process (3).

Plastic can have negative impacts on human health.

Many conventional plastics contain toxic chemicals that leach out over time, for example when the products are scratched, or exposed to heat through sunlight, the dishwasher or the microwave (45). These chemicals can be transferred to our food and into our water sources, and have been linked to cancers, birth defects, weakened immunity and other ailments.

Plastic pollutes the environment.

Sea creatures can mistake plastic debris for food.

 

Scientists estimate that there are over five trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world’s oceans (6). This plastic is estimated to weigh over 250,000 tons, equal to more than 1,250 blue whales – the world’s largest animal. This pollution reaches all corners of the globe – a recent Greenpeace expedition found microplastics and chemicals in remote locations of Antarctica and even in recently fallen snow (7). This pollution is detrimental to wild animals, especially sea creatures. These animals mistake plastic debris for food which they either consume themselves or feed to their young (8). More and more animals are dying either from becoming strangled in the debris or from their stomachs becoming so full of plastic that they cannot digest food.

The Case for Compostable Packaging

The raw materials used for conventional plastic consist primarily of nonrenewable fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas – while compostable packaging is made from renewable plant-based sources (9). The production of compostable packaging requires less energy and produces less CO2 than the creation of conventional plastic (10). Compostable packaging also does not leach out toxic chemicals over time like conventional plastics do (11). When compostable packaging is properly composted, it creates a valuable material that can be used to grow food, or to grow the raw materials used to create the packaging in the first place.

Challenges

Of course, as with any new product development, challenges still exist. The two biggest problems that arise with the use of compostable packaging are consumer confusion and a lack of adequate composting facilities.

Compostable… biodegradable… degradable… what’s what?

Consumers are faced with an increasingly perplexing list of labels and certifications that makes taking out the trash much more challenging and frustrating than we would like.

Unfortunately, materials labeled ‘degradable’ or ‘biodegradable’ are not compostable. Rather than decomposing, these materials just break down into tiny pieces of plastic (12). These products ultimately belong in the landfill and when they are placed in either the compost or recycling bins, they contaminate the stream (13). These imposters have to be fished out by hand by sorters at recycling depots. When it becomes apparent that a stream is too contaminated, the whole load is sent to the landfill.

While consumer confusion around compostable packaging is evidently a challenge that must be addressed, it is important to remember that recycling conventional plastics can be just as difficult. There are six different types of conventional plastic and not all are recyclable (14). Much contamination still exists when recycling conventional plastic (15).

Can your local composting facility handle compostable packaging?

Some varieties of compostable packaging require certain facilities to be properly composted, i.e. if you bury your lunch container in your flower bed, depending on the type of material it is, it might still be there a year from now. This is because some materials require a certain amount of heat and processing to break down properly (16). As a business and a consumer, it is important to consider whether or not your municipality’s composting facility can properly handle compostable packaging.

To find out whether or not your local composting facility can process compostable packaging, the waste management section of your municipality’s website is a good place to start. You can also phone or check the websites of the compost facility itself or any local environmental charities in your area. For example, if you live in the Sea to Sky Corridor, you can refer to the diagram below to determine which compostable materials are accepted at Sea to Sky Soils – the local composting facility (17). All of the Green Mo’s take-out packaging meets ASTM compostability standards – a standard specification for materials designed to be aerobically composted in municipal or industrial facilities (18).

Which compostable materials are accepted at Sea to Sky Soils?

More and more consumers, businesses and communities are pioneering the switch to compostable packaging (19). With this increasing demand, more facilities will be constructed and more research will be conducted to innovate and develop new and improved compostable packaging products.

What now?

Perhaps the best solution is to sit down, relax and take time to enjoy your meal in our cozy cafés. We also encourage customers to bring their own reusable containers for take-out and look forward to the day that this becomes the norm. But if neither of these options are possible, we still believe wholeheartedly in the importance of people having access to nutrient-dense, 100% organic, plant-based food. This is why we provide take-out and strive to offer the most environmentally-friendly packaging options available.

Sources:

  1. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782
  2. https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/a3752/4291566/
  3. https://biodesign.asu.edu/news/perils-plastics-risks-human-health-and-environment
  4. https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1003220/
  5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1074552109000076
  6. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111913
  7. https://storage.googleapis.com/p4-production-content/international/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/4f99ea57-microplastic-antarctic-report-final.pdf
  8. https://plasticoceans.org/about-film/
  9. https://www.creativemechanisms.com/blog/learn-about-polylactic-acid-pla-prototypes
  10. https://web.wpi.edu/Pubs/E-project/Available/E-project-031609-205515/unrestricted/bioplastics.pdf
  11. https://www.creativemechanisms.com/blog/learn-about-polylactic-acid-pla-prototypes
  12. http://www.algalita.org/bioplastics-are-they-the-solution/
  13. https://www.rubiconglobal.com/blog-recycling-contamination/
  14. https://www.ryedale.gov.uk/attachments/article/690/Different_plastic_polymer_types.pdf
  15. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/recycling-contamination-1.4606893
  16. https://mcgillcompost.com/biodegradable-plastic-compostable-plastic
  17. http://www.awarewhistler.org/businesswastesolutions/
  18. https://global.ihs.com/doc_detail.cfm?&rid=Z56&mid=ASTM&input_search_filter=ASTM&item_s_key=00322829&item_key_date=870716&input_doc_number=COMPOSTABLE&input_doc_title=&org_code=ASTM
  19. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/recycling-contamination-1.4606893