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Is Compostable Plastic Greenwashing?

Written by Taylor Stebbins, WC Team Member.

When the pandemic struck, I was waitressing at a local restaurant in Chicago, struggling with the challenges of adapting to a new reality. Suddenly, our world was dominated by concerns about safety, and plastic cups became the norm for serving drinks. It just didn't sit right with me that our convenience was coming at such a high environmental cost. I advocated for a shift to compostable plastic cups. My idea was, if I had to throw out hundreds of single use plastic cups a day, they might as well be able to decompose, and not survive longer than my waitressing career.

Little did I know, my journey would uncover some hard truths about the so-called eco-friendly alternative. Greenwashing plays an almost hidden role in the marketing of most compostable plastic cups, let me tell you how:

Friends enjoying compostable plastic cups at event

Compostable Plastic: A Flawed Alternative

Unlike traditional plastics that linger in the environment for centuries, compostable plastics are marketed as being biodegradable and environmentally friendly. Yet, the reality is far from ideal. There isn't proper responsible infrastructure for what most compostable plastics need, and the labels can misrepresent what is actually needed to properly dispose of them. In the U.S. there are currently 4,700 industrial composting facilities that can compost a wide range of yard trimmings, food scraps, biosolids, and bioplastics, which doesn't even begin to support most city's. If restaurants, venues, or individuals lack access to composting facilities that accept these products, these cups may contaminate recycling efforts or end up in landfills. In these environments most compostable plastics break down anaerobically and release greenhouse gasses in the process.

What’s clear is there’s a country wide, and maybe even global lack of composting infrastructure in city waste management plans. But what stuck with me most is that consumers confusion plays a leading role in the sustainable disposal of compostable plastics! The truth is, people who actively choose alternatives to plastic are shifting their mindset away from depleting natural resources and it's a good thing! However, without proper education and transparent labeling, consumers may inadvertently contribute to environmental degradation by disposing of compostable plastics incorrectly.

Compostable plastic cups that can only decompose in industrial facilities are made out of polylactic acid; large molecules of lactic acid derived from the fermentation of starch like corn or potato plants. Sometimes they’re called bioplastic or PLA and they require a specific number of microorganisms that are found in industrial composting only because, the required temperature is too high to reach in home composting. It's crucial for both consumers and manufacturers to prioritize accurate information and invest in infrastructure that supports responsible disposal of compostable materials. Even so, the lack of truth in product labeling has turned into a form of greenwashing and isn't contributing to a shift away from any type of single-use plastic.

The Bright Side of Compostable Plastic

Despite the flaws in labeling and manufacturing, compostable plastics do have upsides! When managed properly, it can divert organic waste from landfills and contributes to creating nutrient-rich compost. Compostable plastic is the best choice for single use food service utensils that have food contamination on them. Traditional plastic shouldn’t be recycled if covered in food, but the compostable alternative CAN be composted with food contamination. A win-win situation for food and toxic plastic waste! If someone needs more information before considering switching to Compostable PLA plastic, it's important to highlight its significant environmental advantages. Compared to traditional petroleum-based plastic, its production consumes 52% less energy and emits 80% fewer greenhouse gasses, making it a significantly greener choice.

There’s positive progress being made, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International) sets definitions and standards for compostable and biodegradable plastics. While the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is responsible for enforcement against false or deceptive product labeling. At the core of combating greenwashing lies the need for strict regulations governing certification and labeling practices. Choosing sustainable products can be challenging, but it represents a positive change. By prioritizing these standards in our product, it ensures transparency and empowers consumers to make informed sustainable choices. For this to be successful strict regulations on certifications and labeling practices need to address greenwashing.

Better For All's home compostable cup

All About a New Cup by Better for All 

In my search for a better option, I stumbled upon an actual HOME COMPOSTABLE cup called A New Cup by Better for All. These cups are made from a blend of bio-based oils, known as PHBH, which emulate the durability of traditional plastic without the environmental impact of PLA compostable plastic cups. They can biodegrade almost anywhere, including airless environments like landfills. What sets them apart further is their traceability from source to disposal, ensuring ethical production practices and responsible waste management. This level of transparency and accountability is exactly what the industry needs more of.

As a consumer, I see the necessary, (but avoidable,) need for single-use cups at events, restaurants, etc. Better for All stands out as the sole certified home compostable cup available in the US market, bridging the gap for places lacking access to industrial composting facilities that accept them. Its accessibility prompts the need for collaborative composting efforts and fosters community-wide recognition of the importance of choosing products that biodegrade responsibly. I hope this is the future for all single use items, but for now this is a great start. 

Hawaii's Bold Move Against Single-Use Plastic

One thing that keeps me hopeful is seeing real change happen on a large scale. While individual efforts are crucial in combating plastic pollution, systemic change is equally important. In 2021, Hawaii became the first state in the U.S. to ban most single-use plastic containers, utensils, and straws, aiming to reduce plastic pollution and protect its ecosystems. There’s even industrial composting facilities like West Maui Green Cycle that are helping business and people make the right product choices.

Other states such as California, New York, Maine, and Oregon have also been at the forefront of implementing bans or restrictions. These legislations fosters hope, inspiring other communities to enact similar measures and prioritize sustainability over convenience. Better for All's home compostable cup not only aligns with Hawaii’s vision for a plastic-free future but also addresses the challenges faced by communities and individuals without access to industrial composting facilities or just want an at home option. By offering a certified home compostable alternative, Better for All's cup empowers individuals and businesses everywhere to make environmentally conscious choices without compromising convenience.

My journey from advocating for compostable plastic cups to uncovering the truth about them has shown me what our society values. But it's also been a learning experience, reminding me that every choice we make – no matter how small – has an impact! I see more and more people every year consciously choose the healthier option for us and the world. I envy countries like Sweden who prioritize a circular economy model where materials are reused, recycled, or composted whenever possible. The use of compostable plastics are integrated into many of their waste management systems.

The U.S can adopt Sweden's approach to sustainability by focusing on better waste management, promoting recycling and reusing, and educating people about reducing waste and using resources more efficiently. I am thankful for company's like Better For All for meeting the much needed advancements that communities like Hawaii have been looking for.

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