The Upstream Benefits of Compostables
Why Compostable Containers Make Sense Even if You Can’t Compost Them.
We often get questions about the benefits of compostable packaging in areas without commercial compost services available. Recently, a restaurant owner, who has a compost service, wondered what happens if compostable containers are put in a trash can.
We love these questions as it means people are becoming conscious of the massive amounts of food packaging waste we create.
Our response is to make sure everyone knows that, like their plastic counterparts, even compostable containers don’t break down in any reasonable amount of time in a landfill. We need to avoid putting things in landfills altogether. But if you don’t have a choice in your community, you still get many benefits from using compostables.
We call these “upstream” benefits because they occur before the product is used by the consumer.
Made From Renewable Resources
The first upstream benefit is that compostable food service products come from renewable sources. Whether it's corn, sugarcane fiber, or paper, everything natural can be used again. Therefore we’re using resources at a more sustainable rate than petroleum-based plastic.
Many of the materials used in compostables are made from agricultural byproducts, or what is left over and unused after farming. Fiber from wheat, sugarcane and bamboo farming are prime examples. Previously, the stalks, leaves and fibrous remnants were burned or left to compost. Now they are put to use to replace materials like foam and plastic.
Less Toxic Chemicals
The second benefit is that these solutions don’t contain toxic chemicals used in many traditional plastics. There's the styrene and benzene that workers and consumers are exposed to from polystyrene plastic. The dioxins in our environment from the use of chlorine bleaching of paper. And the small and large oil spills from petroleum extraction. None of these things are issues with compostable products.
Uses Fewer Resources to Manufacture
The third benefit is that many sustainable packaging solutions use less energy to produce than their plastic counterparts. For example, PLA uses 68% less energy to make than traditional plastic.
Another benefit consumers get from buying compostable food service products is that it sends a powerful buying signal into the marketplace. That signal shows manufacturers they’ll be rewarded for continuing to innovate and drive down costs of plastic-free packaging.
It also sends a signal to municipalities to enable more permits to be created for commercial compost facilities to process these products into usable compost instead of filling up landfills.
What about using recyclable plastic?
In case you were wondering, using recyclable plastic is not a long-term sustainable answer. Approximately 93% of all the plastic we throw out each year never reaches a recycling facility but ends up in a landfill anyway. Of the small amount that does go into the “recycling” stream, very little comes back in the form in which it originated.
You can safely assume that most plastic in the recycling bin ends up in a landfill because there isn’t a profitable enough market for some plastics to be recycled. It often ends up scrapped and sometimes even incinerated for energy, not turned into another plastic bottle as many people think.
Additionally, food residue renders paper and plastic unable to be recycled because of contamination.
Even if commercial composting is not available in your area, there are many reasons to make the switch anyway. It sends the message to your community, governments, and consumers that you care and are willing to drive change.