The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 2

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

In my last post, I introduced the topic of packaging and the environmental crisis it has created. I left off with an explanation of greenwashing (read here about how to avoid greenwashed products), and in this post, I’m going to describe two terms that are often misused in advertising.

Remember: the answer to packaging is to reduce our reliance on it; to stop using it.

Styrofoam cup floating in water with plantlife
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

“Biodegradable” and “Compostable”

If only these words were the solutions to our global packaging problem! Unfortunately, they are two of the most abused terms in greenwashed advertising. Biodegradable refers to any material that decomposes in the environment. Compostable means that the material is organic matter that will break down and turn into soil. These words do not always mean what we think when it comes to sustainable packaging. In fact, if biodegradable and compostable items go into the trash and then a landfill, they do not biodegrade. Nothing in a landfill breaks down. Worse, the contents of landfills release methane gas, a major contributor to global warming.

Biodegradable plastics will only break down under the right conditions, such as in an industrial composting facility, not in a backyard composting system.

Industrial Composting Facilities

There are several types of composting systems. A home compost system is mainly food and yard waste that you can set up yourself. Commercial composting refers to a municipal or city composting facility that accepts food and/or yard waste. An industrial composting facility requires precise processing conditions under a controlled biotechnological process. In order to be effective, these conditions include a certain high temperature, moisture level, aeration, pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio.

Industrial composting facilities are not available in many places. There are about 200 in the US, serving less than 5% of the population. If there is notince

If there is a facility in your area, it still does not guarantee the items will be composted. The reality is that many facilities cannot tell the difference between compostable plastics from regular plastics other than by carefully reading the label on each item. This is not practical with the number of disposables we currently discard, so these items are often landfilled.

Examples

Let’s look at three examples of greenwashed and problematic products.

Wincup polystyrene disposable cups

I saw this single-use disposable coffee cup on the campus where I work. A colleague had purchased coffee at the cafeteria and the images of green leaves and biodegradable claim drew my interest. The company, called WinCup and based out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, claims to be a leading manufacturer of disposable polystyrene products.

First, these cups will not biodegrade unless they are put into biologically active landfills, which are far and few between. On their website, they claim that their “cups biodegrade 92% over 4 years” and “under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill.” What is this type of landfill? My understanding is that it is similar to an industrial composting facility in which moisture is added to assist with breakdown.

Most of these cups are tossed in the regular trash and deposited in landfills. This is the case where I work (I have plans to meet with cafeteria management to come up with better solutions for food and drinkware). These cups will not break down in a landfill. Additionally, if these cups end up in the ocean, they will likely not break down and will also leach toxins. Those toxins are ingested by marine life and make their way up through the food chain into us.

BASF ecovio line

BASF, a major chemical corporation, claims to “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.” I found some greenwashed marketing on their website about compostable plastic:

BASF website screenshot for "compostable" plastic

Ecovio film applications are used for organic waste bags, fruit and vegetable bags, carrier bags, agricultural films, etc. Their claim is that the product is compostable, but the fine print indicates it is compostable “under the conditions of an industrial composting plant.”

Screenshot from BASF's website about their compostable bags

This picture is misleading, as it shows a person putting a bag of compost into a compost bin. This gives the impression that these bags will break down in any compost collection when that is not the case. BASF’s compostable certification is the ASTM D6400, which is specifically for industrial composting facilities. Those are not available in most municipalities or states. If these products go into a landfill, it makes no environmental impact whatsoever. They also cause the same pollution problems as regular plastic.

Molded fiber take-out packaging

molded fiber take out container

These “compostable” and “plastic alternative” molded fiber take-out containers seemed like a magnificent alternative to plastic until they were discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). This chemical protects the fibers from becoming wet and soggy. They are the same compounds used in some nonstick cookware, known to cause cancers, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children.

These were marketed as compostable. However, these chemicals do not disappear. They get into the soil from the compost, and potentially into whatever is grown in that soil. Worse, these chemicals make into the waterways and eventually into our drinking water. Read an excellent article here for more information on molded fiber food containers.

My family ate out of these types of containers multiple times. Of course, I had no idea the time that these contained PFOAs. Many major eateries have stopped using these.

Solution

In general, we must consume less. We must end the production and use of single-use disposable items. Most importantly, being aware of these problems is key because we can all make a difference.

For more information on how biodegradable and compostable items break down, read this article in Anthropocene and this one from fastcompany.com.

In my next post about packaging, I’ll explain bioplastics, which are often advertised as biodegradable or compostable. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

 

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