What Does Compostable Mean?

Have you ever seen items like disposable knives, forks, or food containers with the word “compostable” written on them? These compostable items frequently feel and look like plastic but are made of plants instead. Compostable plastics are fantastic, but there’s a catch: even though these items are technically compostable, they don’t naturally decompose and won’t decompose in a landfill.

You might probably get a little confused at this point. However, this article will teach you all you need to understand about the nature of these “compostable” items, including what it takes for them to be compostable in the first place. 

What Does It Mean for a Product to Be Compostable?

By definition, “compostable” refers to a product’s potential to decompose into a natural element or that the item will decompose into nutrient-rich soil within a particular time frame. It does not negatively impact the environment as it decomposes into natural elements. Typically, the breakdown process takes 90 days; however, this might change depending on the materials being composted.

Food waste is probably the first thing that comes to mind when considering compostable; however, several household items, like coffee filters, pet hair, and nail clippings, may be composted.

Additionally, several goods make the compostability claim: A compostable product is defined as “any product expressly constructed to decompose in a compost plant at the end of its useful life” by the US Composting Council. It can be created from materials like paper, plastic, or plant fibers and other components that give it the required form and efficiency.

Composting “compostable” materials are actually simpler said than done. It’s often not as simple as tossing it in your compost pile with other biodegradable materials; sometimes, they need a specialized atmosphere to decompose effectively.

The Misconception

It is considered that something must be able to decompose completely to be considered compostable. Unfortunately, determining a product’s “natural state” is sometimes difficult, which makes regulation challenging.

It’s very simple for companies to slap the word “compostable” on products because many of those items are actually compostable under the right conditions. This misleading advertising practice is known as “greenwashing.” But that’s when things can become challenging.

The term “compostable” is misleading, even though certain companies’ products will eventually decompose. Several factors must often come together for that process to succeed, and it can occasionally take decades or even hundreds of years.

The Truth

When the phrase “compostable” appears on a product in a store, you frequently look at a commercially compostable product. This indicates that the product is delivered to a commercial composting facility with the ideal temperature, humidity, and oxygen levels for decomposing organic and plant-based substances. This is the only way those products can be efficiently broken down.

Fruits and vegetables can quickly decompose in a home composter. However, your household garbage won’t get hot enough to decompose bioplastics or other compostable plastics. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), home composting is only effective if the product’s label makes it clear. If you place them in your home composter, they will simply sit there and not decompose.

How To Identify A Compostable Plastic 

Making a buying decision for a compostable product might be challenging. As stated earlier, the manufacturer tries to mislead you about a product’s qualities to get you to buy it or even pay more.

The most important thing to remember is that a compostable product will only decay under particular circumstances and during a predetermined time frame, often 90 days. A reputable authority must also accredit these goods.

Here are ways to identify which item is compostable and where to compost it.

Compostable Labels

compostable glass
Compostable Glass

The “home compostable” and (commercial) “compostable” labels indicate that the US Composting Council has approved a product as compostable. These labels are embossed on takeaway food containers, BioPak coffee cup lids, and disposable cups.

Even when something is “compostable,” it shouldn’t go in your home compost pile, and these materials must meet specific requirements found only in a commercial composting system to decompose. By distinguishing between “compostable” and “home compostable,” we may avoid putting compostable plastics in our community and household compost bins, only to be disappointed when they don’t decompose after three months.

PLA Plastic Code

PLA Plastic Lids

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a type of plastic that is often compostable and made from plant material. It is advisable to keep an eye out for the number 7 in the PLA recycling emblem, which is imprinted on takeaway cups, bowls, and lids.

The number 7 denotes that the substance is an ‘other plastic’ (according to the plastic code system); hence the number alone does not indicate that it is compostable. Look for the initials PLA to ensure that the product is made of plant material. 

Pro Tip: A product is NOT compostable if it has a #7 inside the recycling arrow but does not also say “compostable” or “PLA.” The number 7 is frequently used to identify mixed polymers, which are neither compostable nor recyclable.

Plain ol’ Paper

Thermal Paper Rolls
Thermal Paper Rolls

Because they are made entirely of paper and contain no other plastics, napkins, tissues, paper towels, and paper scraps may all be safely composted. You won’t be contaminating the soil with your cold since commercial composting facilities can safely “cook” away the germs.

But don’t let those coffee cups, takeout boxes, paper plates, and milk or juice cartons deceive you; they’re frequently covered with plastic and shouldn’t be composted unless they have the proper certification.

Newspapers, cardboard, letters, printer paper, and magazines still have a place in your recycling bin since they may be turned into new material there.

SEE: What is a Septic System? How it Works

How Do I Dispose of Compostable Products?

It will help if you don’t overlook this critical fact: most compostable items decompose only under specified conditions. Throwing them in the garbage, leaving them in the environment, or burying them will not work. These materials need to be appropriately disposed of in a commercial composting facility.

Additionally, there is some indication that not all commercial composting plants are capable of breaking down some “compostable plastic” products. Confirming that the facility accepting your food waste can handle these materials is critical.  

To understand how to dispose of compostable products, it is vital to understand the difference between home compost (backyard compost) and commercial compost.

Home Composting

One of the most efficient and ecologically friendly ways to dispose of garbage is to compost it at home. Composting at home requires little effort; you only need a compost container and a small yard space.

Items you can dispose of in a backyard compost include eggshells, cardboard, grass clippings, leftover vegetables and fruit, coffee grounds, and loose tea. They may all be disposed of in your compost bin together with packaging that can be composted. You may also add the waste from your pet.

Composting at home typically takes longer than composting in a commercial or industrial setting. Depending on the composting conditions and the pile contents, it might take anything from three months to two years at home.

You may use it to improve the soil in your garden once it has fully decomposed.

Commercial Composting 

To handle enormous amounts of biodegradable garbage, specialized plants have been created. In a professional context, materials decay considerably more quickly than they would at home on a compost heap.

Waste that can be composted is divided into two heaps in a commercial composting operation. They are composted in one of two methods and are referred to as feedstock heaps.

  • Windrow composting necessitates machinery to spin the feedstock, allowing for aeration.
  • Underground fans are necessary for aerated static composting, and these fans rotate the feedstock pile while forcing air through it.

Temperature, oxygen, water, and carbon-nitrogen levels are all regulated during both procedures. Microbes can increase and speed up the breakdown of the feedstock heaps.

The quality of the residual compost is examined after the procedure. After that, it may be used again as soil or fertilizer for plants.

The best option is to dispose of them in a commercial compost. Many cities and municipalities will offer dumpsters to nearby businesses, parks, and individuals to encourage appropriate disposal. It may be possible to dispose of a biodegradable item in a backyard compost if it has a consistency more like paper or is a very thin film. This is not assured, however, because decomposition depends on the elements (moisture, heat, oxygen).

SEE: How to Use A Trash Compactor?

FAQs

What makes compostable plastics different from regular plastics?

There are two primary variations:

Unlike traditional plastics, which are produced using nonrenewable resources like oil, gas, and coal, compostable plastics are produced using renewable resources like corn and sugarcane.

Plastics that can be composted are non-toxic, whereas regular plastics can release harmful chemicals into the air, water, and soil. “Exposure to [these chemicals] has been related to cancer, birth defects, poor immunity, endocrine disruption, and other diseases” (Plastic Pollution Coalition).

Are there any compostable goods that decompose rapidly or naturally?

When exposed to moisture, compostable packing peanuts quickly decompose within a few seconds. Compostable packing peanuts quickly decompose into slime or sludge when placed in water. Additionally, paper-like goods can decompose in a compost tumbler or the backyard. One example of this is biodegradable paper straws. 

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