The Brewing Battle Over Compostable Plastics

Offerings of compostable plastics continue to expand, but so does the disconnect regarding their actual compostability.

Save That Stuff, a leading compost hauler in the Boston area, told the Boston Globe it will no longer encourage companies to use compostable dishware because it “contaminates” food waste. Area farms that received the food waste turned away trucks that had compostable plastics because they didn’t break down quickly.

Compostable plastics and food waste ae collected together at MIT bin.

Compostable plastics and food waste are collected together at MIT bin.

The issue is complicated. Users mix food scraps and compostable plastics. There are misunderstandings about the compostability of compostable plastics. There are too few industrial-scale composters.

Of course, it’s cheapest and easiest for institutions and restaurants to throw the compostable dishware in with the food scraps. But they compost at significantly different rates.

In a blog post titled “Death of Composting”, Ayr Muir vented about the extra costs he had incurred to use fully compostable packaging only to discover that Save That Stuff had stopped delivering his company’s food waste to composting facilities. And he has been paying 60 percent more for composting versus landfill.

“I’m trying to keep my cool but I’m not doing a very good job of it,” said Muir, who established Clover Food Labs in 2008 to emphasize sustainable food sold through trucks at MIT and other locations around Boston.

The upshot? “I expect we’ll move away from compostable packaging and instead move to post-consumer recyclable,” said Muir.

Meanwhile, the biodegradable plastic industry continues to expand.

At K2016—the giant German plastics exposition—BASF will unveil an expansion of its compostable ecovio product line, which is made from polylactic acid and fossil fuels. Emphasis to date has been on food-contact products. The new product will target expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam replacement with an ecovio foam. It’s a drop-in from a manufacturing standpoint, and the product has good energy-absorbing characteristics. And it has “outstanding compostability” in an industrial composting plant.

Customers want an environmentally friendly solution that they can tout to their customers, who can also brag that they are replacing EPS foam with an environmentally friendly product.

And then everyone is disappointed and expresses shock when they discover the product is being landfilled because there are no local industrial composters—or they are too expensive.

None of this is new to anyone who has been paying attention for the past dozen years. Ayr Muir is an MIT grad and should have done his homework.

But considering that even he is surprised at the technical limitations of biodegradable plastics, we need the plastics industry to do a better job of presenting these products in an appropriate context.

Compostable plastic will next target EPS foam. (BASF)

Compostable plastic will next target EPS foam. (BASF)

About Doug Smock

Former Chief Editor at Plastics World and Senior Technical Editor Design News
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