Should you use “compostable” disposables?
It’s the New Year and you may have made it a goal to waste less and recycle more. That’s great!
A common question we receive here at SLCgreen is about so-called “compostable” or “biodegradable” disposables.
What are they? Are they better than regular disposables? Can they go in the brown curbside compost can?
At first blush, they seem to offer a great solution–the convenience of single-use bags, plates, cups, and utensils — with a supposedly more environmentally-friendly footprint.
However, the truth is more complicated.
That’s because, as it turns out, these single-use ‘bioplastic’ products are just as bad for the environment as the regular single-use plastic products they were meant to replace.
So what is bioplastic?
Bioplastic products are typically made from a substance called PLA (polylactic acid plastic). PLA is a polymer made from polylactic molecules, which are usually derived from renewable resources, like corn. It seems to make sense right? Unfortunately, these plastics will not break down in a backyard or commercial composter — PLA plastics need an industrial composter to be composted. A bioplastic cup thrown in a commercial or backyard composter will decay just as slowly as a regular plastic cup, which means it will remain intact for decades.
The difference between a commercial and an industrial composter is that the industrial composters are able to break the bioplastic down into tiny pieces and compost it with very high heat and water through a process called hydrolysis. Salt Lake City does not have an industrial composter.
Here’s what is accepted into the brown compost containers.
In fact, bioplastics produce methane as they decompose. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas– giving these products an even worse carbon footprint than typical plastic.
Unfortunately, so-called “biodegradable/compostable” plastic also can’t go into most curbside recycling bins as it cannot be processed with other plastics.
So if you are given a “compostable” plastic bag or other bioplastic item, please re-use it and then put it in the regular garbage when it’s time to dispose of it.
Why can’t they be recycled?
Bioplastic compostables can’t be recycled because they aren’t plastic and they may actually contaminate a load. (Standard single-use plastic utensils aren’t recyclable in our curbside program either, because of their size and rigid nature. Hard plastic utensils get crushed at typical sorting facilities.)
Phew! This leaves the lingering question: which product should you choose?
The answer: neither! Instead, we encourage you to #DitchtheDisposables and bring your own!
The best way to deal with our growing waste problem is not about choosing between plastic and bioplastic but instead reducing what we buy and reusing what we already have.
We know it’s tough to do this 100% of the time. That’s okay! By simply making a conscious effort to say no to disposable products of all types, you’re making a difference.
There are so many great products already in our kitchens that make it really easy to bring reusables with us whenever we’re out and about.
So, whether that’s using regular cutlery at your dinner party; making your own durable “to-go” kit that you can take to restaurants; or bringing your own produce bags to the grocery store or farmers market, the bottom line is that the best solution is to avoid single-use plastics.
By moving away from a disposable lifestyle, we all can save both money and the planet!
So make 2019 the year you say no to disposables! Choose reusables and start your journey to a Zero Waste lifestyle.