Because You Asked

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

Written 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 the 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. They 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.

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.

SOURCES
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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