“Compostable” plastic impact and alternatives to focus on

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It’s no longer a secret that single-use plastic is harming the planet. Not only does the process of creating these materials emit huge amounts of planet-warming gases, but they can also take centuries to break down in a landfill.

As demand for climate action grows and the dangers of plastics become more evident, consumers are turning to so-called compostable and biodegradable alternatives for things like food containers, cups, plates, cutlery and bags, in hopes of further mitigating climate and environmental damage. .

But unfortunately, researchers say these products are also a problem.

A new study in the UK has found that 60% of products labeled as compostable do not fully decompose in home compost. And unlike conventional plastics, these alternatives are largely unregulated, despite their advertised benefits.

“In the laboratory, where [these plastics] were tested and paid for by a manufacturer, they behaved in a way, and they were determined to be compostable in a home composter,” Danielle Purkiss, researcher and lead author of the study, told CNN. “But what happened was that we saw a lot of this certified packaging not decomposing in these different home composting conditions.”

The study shows “there is a problem with testing in the lab versus the real world conditions under which these materials are disposed of,” Purkiss told CNN.

Although compostable and biodegradable packaging and cutlery are touted as environmentally friendly, their production is still resource and energy intensive, according to Judith Enck, former regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and now am president of Beyond Plastics, a non-profit organization. on consumer research and education.

In addition to the greenhouse gases emitted by the industrial facilities producing these products, the crops used as feedstock, such as corn or sugar beets, also require significant amounts of fossil fuels, agricultural land and water to create them – all the resources that could instead be used for food, says Enck.

Although compostables are still marginally better than conventional plastics, Enck told CNN, “people shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking they’re actually compostable.”

“There is a bit of greenwashing here,” she added.

The researchers say the message hasn’t been clear about the sustainability of these compostable options. One of the main findings of the report, Purkiss said, is that people are confused and don’t know the meaning of labels on compostable and biodegradable plastic items.

Ultimately, companies are still using fossil fuels in these products, while continuing to market them as sustainable, leading to poor plastic waste disposal. Biodegradable plastic, for example, although biobased, can still be made at least in part with fossil fuels.

Ultimately, compostable products are designed to fully decompose only in industrial composting facilities that regulate temperature to achieve maximum composting efficiency. But most of those products don’t end up there, Enck and Purkiss said — they end up in regular landfills, where they’ll linger for years, just like conventional plastics. Or they will be burned in waste incinerators, where they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

“It pains me to say this because I want the non-plastic alternatives to work,” Enck said, “but there really is no such thing as biodegradable plastics, and compostable packaging is only truly composted in high-temperature composting facilities.”

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Experts who spoke to CNN said the fact that people are already willing to ditch single-use plastics for more sustainable options is a great first step. And there are other ways to reduce your impact.

Purkiss and fellow researchers at University College London have designed a citizen science study in which more than 1,600 participants in the UK have so far voluntarily experimented with home composting. Purkiss said other people can also participate in the “Big Compost Experiment” to help scientists learn more about the impact of these products.

Purkiss also said it was important for consumers to vote with their wallets.

“A citizen has many ways to influence change, and one of the ways they can really influence behavior is through their purchasing decisions,” Purkiss said. “They need to pressure manufacturers and businesses to move to more sustainable models.”

Here are some other ways to reduce the amount of plastic in your daily life:

Skip Biodegradable Plastic “That’s a misnomer,” said Enck. Instead, use reusable or refillable items when you can, or opt for packaging made from recycled materials that can easily be recycled.

Prepare reusable and refillable items — Bring reusable bags when you go grocery shopping, not only for all your items but also for your favorite products. Use refillable mugs or thermoses for your coffee or tea on the go, and the same goes for a refillable water bottle.

Prefer paper packaging (or not) to plastic — If you have two versions of the same product in front of you and one is wrapped in paper or cardboard and the other in plastic, then the choice is obvious. For food or restaurant takeout, opt for recyclable aluminum packaging instead.

Bring your own cutlery or containers to take away — Enck brings its own reusable utensils and containers to restaurants that typically serve food in single-use plastic. Not every restaurant will allow it, she says, but it’s important to support those that do.

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