What You Need To Know About Environmental Packaging

(Article published on ReCultured.com, a student blogging website, in July 2014. The site is now defunct.)

July 21, 2014 

There is a lot of debate surrounding this issue, like how bio-plastics and bio-fuel are made out of crops grown specifically for that purpose and is creating additional harmful methane gas in the process. Other discussions surround how “biodegradable” plastic bags actually just fall apart into a million tiny plastic bits but never actually degrade. Today however, I want to talk about the disguised evil that is “compostable” plastics.

Photo Credit: earthware

This summer I am doing a co-op work term that is all about recycling. As I travel around BC with a partner, we have even jokingly been called the “Recycling Police” even though we try really hard to come off as non-threatening.

I first encountered industrially compostable cups when I visited a very popular coffee shop in Quesnel, and the smoothie I ordered came in this plastic cup. The cups are unique because of their “compostable” nature, and I honestly did not know how to dispose of them. So, I decided to practice what I preach and look into the matter further.

Like many “compostable” plastics, these will not biodegrade in your backyard compost heap. They need the heavy-duty treatment of an industrial composter, able to bring contents up to a high heat required for decomposition.

Not exactly something everyone has in their backyards. Photo credit: Sustainability UC Davis

The location of your nearest industrial composter isn’t exactly common knowledge. I ended up emailing the bcrecycles hotline (hotline@rcbc.ca), the resource to inquire about recycling any specific item. These people really know recycling and have great customer service. This was the official response:

“The problem is that the industrial composting facilities we know of generally do not accept public drop-off. In addition, many of them explicitly state that they do not accept bioplastics.”

I have done some poking around, and the two industrial composters I have found are at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops and at the Gibsons Recycling Depot.

Here emerges the real issue in compostable plastics: Consumers have to adapt to a whole new waste management stream, and one that is not readily available. At least if this was regular plastic it could be accepted into the regular recycling system and made into new products. Unfortunately the consumers who would have recycled a plastic cup will see the “compostable” cup and throw it into the landfill garbage.

We all need to be more aware of what we consume, and think about the impact it will have after we are finished with it – especially with all these new environmental materials coming into the market. Sometimes by buying “green” products we take the environmental easy way out, thinking that the manufacturer has done the work of reducing our impact for us, but more often than not this is simply a practice in “greenwashing”*. It’s your responsibility to recycle properly, so only buy items in packaging you know how to recycle. Take the first step by avoiding “industrially compostable” packaging!

*Greenwashing: Marketing a product as environmentally friendly in order to increase sales.

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