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Just What Does "Compostable" Mean?

Just What Does "Compostable" Mean?

On the quest to find the right packaging for Dorothy's Power Gruel, I wanted to use packaging that fits our values, one of those living sustainably. So at a minimum, the packaging needed to be comprised of sustainable materials and be recyclable, but ideally be compostable as well.

The more I researched, the more I saw buzzwords and catchphrases around sustainability and waste. Terms like "eco-friendly" and "bio-based" to give the impression the materials are sustainably created and safely thrown away. Spoiler: they are not. Many of these materials are marginally better than plastics, and they are still harmful to our health and environment. Let's separate fact from fiction.

Plastic is plastic. A trend has been to offer "bioplastic" made from recycled material or plant cellulose and often called biodegradable. The problem is that it's no safer than petroleum-based plastic. Some studies have shown bioplastic triggered stronger toxic reactions than petroleum-based plastic. The bottom line is we have to move away from plastics of any kind.

Biodegradable does not mean safe. When a manufacturer makes a biodegradable claim, it merely means that a substance breaks down into more basic elements. Those elements can still be very toxic in the soil, so having a plastic break down in the ground can be worse than sending it to a landfill. And to be clear, it is also not the same as being compostable. Compostable means a material can disintegrate into natural elements in a compost environment, with no toxicity in the soil. This breakdown must occur around 90-120 days.

I became suspicious when I saw on packages "100% compostable in a commercial facility." Coming from advertising, I was suspicious that "commercial composting facility" was just a code word for a landfill. Thankfully, no. The term reflects the need for a facility that can handle the varying requirements for different materials and the scale required for the larger composting material volume.

Home composting and commercial composting are different. Different compostable materials have different rates at which they break down and need to be turned, so the process requires separate piles are for various materials. Furthermore, home composting has limits on the amount of material added to a compost pile. Commercial facilities can create large compost piles and then turn them at the frequency they need, while most homeowners don't want 4-5 composting piles in their yard and need to follow a complicated turning schedule. I know I don't. 😬

Make sure your recycler accepts compostable materials. Research shows that almost everyone recycles because it makes us feel that we're doing something positive and sustainable. Unfortunately, studies estimate that 90% of plastic recycling is ending up in a landfill. So if we shift to other materials, we have to make sure those don't end up in a landfill too. 

Most waste-disposal companies have developed composting programs that will sort out materials into their appropriate processing lanes, so it may be as easy as throwing it in your recycling bin! But be sure to check, because more and more companies will be delivering their products in these compostable containers. Short-term, you may need to take these materials to a local commercial composting company until your waste disposal company has that capability.

We found a best-in-class container. Through our research, we found a company called Good Start Packaging that specializes in sustainable packaging. Our cup for Dorothy's Power Gruel is a sugarcane fiber container designed for hot and cold foods. It is lined with a bio-lining made from corn and uses NO waxes or plastics that are harmful to health and the environment. We also use a lid made of sugarcane fiber and gluten-free wheat straw agricultural fiber. They are both PFAS-free, certified compostable by the BPI, and meet the appropriate ASTM D-6400 standards.

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