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Because You Asked

Because You Asked: Why Can’t I Compost Everything Labeled “Compostable”?

By Recyclebank |

There’s your home composting, then there’s commercial composting.

Dear Recyclebank,

I recently came across some plastic bags that say they are “Certified Compostable” and biodegradable. Can I really throw these bags into my compost pile?

-Brenda L., Pensacola, FL

Dear Brenda,

It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? After all these years of seeing plastic bags littering the landscape and hearing about how environmentally damaging they can be, a biodegradable and compostable plastic bag sounds like a miracle.

While it is true that some plastic bags are compostable, it’s likely that they’re not compostable in your backyard. Certified compostable plastic bags are designed to break down in commercial facilities. That’s because commercial composting facilities maintain the perfect conditions needed for the plastic to break down. The compost pile in your backyard or even your rotating bin are unlikely to reach or maintain the heat, aeration, moisture, and chemical balance necessary to biodegrade this kind of plastic.

The requirement of very specific composting conditions means that the environmental advantages of compostable plastic bags will not be realized unless they end up at a commercial compost facility. Compostable plastic bags will not break down if tossed in the trash and sent to a landfill. They will not just melt back into nature if thrown outside. And they are not recyclable.

Truly biodegradable plastic bags are a great advance for the environment, but it’s crucial for people to be aware what a “certified compostable” label means. The most widely used and trusted compostable certification is the BPI Compostable logo, which is issued by the U.S. Composting Council. A certified BPI Compostable plastic bag is “designed to biodegrade quickly, completely and safely, when composted in well-run municipal and commercial facilities.”

For plastic products that claim to be biodegradable or compostable and are not BPI Compostable-certified, check very carefully what their labels mean. According to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, a company should “clearly and prominently qualify compostable claims” if:

  • The item cannot be composted safely or in a timely manner in a home compost pile
  • The claim misleads people about the environmental benefit provided when the item is disposed of in a landfill
  • The item must be composted in a commercial facility, which may not be available in the consumer’s area

There is still a lack of strong federal regulation and enforcement when it comes to biodegradable plastic, but the FTC has begun cracking down recently. In the meantime, keep compostable plastic bags out of your compost pile, and send them to commercial composting facilities. Be sure not to put compostable plastic in your recycle bin because these products are not recyclable.

Biodegradable Products Institute
U.S. Federal Trade Commission
U.S. Composting Council

Did you know that not everything labeled “compostable” can be composted at home?


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  • tommy b. 2 years ago
  • Meg P. 2 years ago
    There are some lightweight, very thin green bags around, that claim to be compostable. I have used them in my under sink compost bucket, and have been disgusted with the results. Perhaps I kept them in service too long. I do not want them breaking down in my bucket! Smelly mess. So, be wary.
    • Steven C. 2 years ago
      I had the same problem. So I have been using for a few years a large plastic coffee container. All compost now goes into that. After I dump it into the compost, cleanup is a snap. If it needs a good soaking, I don't use fresh water. I use rinse water when I wash dishes.
  • tommy b. 2 years ago
  • tommy b. 3 years ago
  • Barbara C. 3 years ago
    My local stores have plastic bag recycling, so I just drop off a bunch of the bags when I go shopping.
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