We are making progress in North America with regards to the awareness of our environmental impact. The words "compost" "green" "eco friendly" and "biodegradable" are becoming widely used terms. A handful of major cities have even shifted to a large-scale composting system. It's great that we want to reduce our food waste. In Canada, more than $31 billion worth of food is wasted every year. Compost programs are an excellent way to navigate the waste away from landfills, where it produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Food accounts for 25% of methane produced from landfills, which emit 20% of methane overall. It's crazy when you think about it.
Composting has become trendy, which is rad...when we're composting the right materials. There has been an increase in companies marketing their products as "biodegradable", with packaging being made out of plant-based materials. But this is equivalent to heavily processed foods pumped with growth hormones, being labelled as "natural" Companies are capitalizing on the eco movement...this is known as greenwashing.
Six months ago, I personally was a victim of greenwashing. I was trying to convince a company to make the switch from plastic to "biodegradable" cups, because I thought they were truly compostable. Through my own personal research, I soon learned that these "bioplastics" are not truly compostable at all. Conventional plastics are made from fossil fuels and bioplastics (PLA) are derived from renewable resources such as corn or sugar cane. So, you'd assume these plant based materials would be eco-friendly, right? Wrong
Smacking the term biodegradable on something simply means that compared to regular plastic, it will biodegrade in a short time span, and when we contemplate the meaning of life, is quite relative. Most of the time these bioplastics just break into lots of tiny little pieces and stick around for longer than a lot of city compost systems can handle - precisely why the company I was trying to help went with my final idea, of not switching to bioplastics.
When bioplastics don't end up in a compost facility that can handle them, there's nothing green about these products. Not only does it take more energy to create a biodegradable product, but when they end up in landfills and decompose without oxygen, they'll emit methane, the greenhouse gas that's 23 times more potent that CO2. And, since they look so similar to regular plastic, if they end up in recycling bins, the entire lot is deemed contaminated. Some Recycling plants have scanners to pick up these non-recyclables, and will pick them out, at the expense of our tax dollars going towards the extra labour costs.
How do we handle these "biodegradable" products?
If you don't have access to a commercial compost facility that has the resources to properly break down these bioplastics, it's best to not even bother with them.
Look for substitutes labelled compostable rather than biodegradable. Or better yet, switch to products that can be reused, like jars when you order take out or carry around a set of cutlery with you. These simple acts let us go back to the basics of the zero waste hierarchy; in order to minimize what we send to the landfill, we need to avoid, reduce, reuse, recycle and compost.
It's great to go green, and through education and open discussion we, as consumers, have the ability to make informed decisions about whether we want to support this greenwashing or opt for companies that operate with full transparency.