Compostable Plastic Consumer Guide

Compostable plastics are a step in the right direction when it comes to reducing single-use plastics, but choosing the “right” compostable plastic when you’re at a restaurant or in the grocery store can be overwhelming.

How to shop for compostable plastic

Because products are being marketed as sustainable using several buzzwords, it can be difficult to understand exactly what you’re getting.  One common source of confusion is the difference between biodegradable and compostable claims. At its core, the term “biodegradable” just means that an object will break down over time. Even traditional plastics will break down into microplastics over the course of many years, but because they’re not composed of organic compostable material plastic doesn’t qualify as compostable and won’t provide any benefit to the soil or environment. 

When it comes to purchasing products that are marketed as compostable, beware of greenwashing. Some companies produce single-use plastics and decorate it in green, with a “recycle” symbol or a tree to disguise it in “eco” branding – even when the product is made of conventional plastic. 

To make matters even more complicated, just because a product says “compostable” does not make it so.  “Compostable” products may only break down in very specific environments, or may contain chemicals that will  release toxins that contaminate finished compost. Certain products that are branded as compostable still contain toxic “forever” chemicals called PFAS chemicals. PFAS is especially dangerous because it is considered to be a trigger for a variety of medical conditions, and, once it exists in an environment it will be there forever. Vegetables grown in soil that contains these chemicals will contain traces of these toxins, making it very important to keep this material out of the composting process.

To be an informed consumer, you’ll need to dig deeper.

What is a BPI Certified product and why is the best option for compostable plastics?

Selecting truly compostable plastics is no easy feat. The best way to confirm that a single-use item is compostable is by locating the BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) approval symbol, or by looking up the specific item on the BPI website. Because BPI certification is a scientifically credible identifier, you can be confident that BPI-certified items will be properly processed in most industrial composting facilities. 

Although finding truly compostable plastics is possible, the best option is to minimize all single-use items – even if they are compostable. Reusable alternatives are a great option when it comes to reducing waste, and they’ll save you money in the long run as well. 

How do we process compostable plastics at our Compost Outposts®?

At Compost Crew on our on-farm composting facilities, or Compost Outposts®, our team undergoes rigorous decontamination processes. To avoid any possible contamination, we filter out non-organic material at our Compost Outposts. We often find non-compostable single-use items mixed in, especially products with deceptive “eco” branding.  

Even BPI-certified compostable plastics take longer to decompose than other organic materials.  So, we filter out compostable plastics from our facilities and divert them to commercial composting facilities to be processed in a more appropriate setting. 

Tips for incorporating reusables and opting out of single use products
  • Consider carrying small tupperware to restaurants if you think you may have leftovers
  • Slip a silverware set and reusable straw into your everyday bag to have them on hand
  • Bring your reusable water bottle and/or coffee mug with you when you travel

Compostable-ware is better than plastic, but it’s best to use as little as possible. When in doubt, remember the Zero Waste hierarchy: first reduce your overall waste production, next reuse and avoid single-use items, and, finally, recycle and compost any excess. 

By: Ivy Ivy Nargiz, Composting Coordination Associate