Today’s tea: compostable packaging

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Today’s Tea:

Your compostable packaging is only compostable if you actually… compost it.

Sure, we can applaud companies who use compostable plastic cups and compostable paper bowls but the praise is meaningless if we put those compostable items in the trash. When we put compostables in the trash, they go to the landfill where they will not break down. Organics need air to decompose, and because waste is compressed tightly before being stored in the landfill, it does not get airflow and it breaks down very slowly. Even biodegradable items, compostable packaging, and food waste take years—even decades to break down in the landfill. Case in point: A head of lettuce takes 25 years to decompose in a landfill.

Add to that: Many consumers don’t know that compostable plastics aren’t recyclable. Compostable plastics are often made from corn, which melts at a lower temperature than plastic. When mixed with regular plastics these almost-plastics gunk up the recycling process.

And in the final analysis, many so-called compostable materials like plant-based plastics are effectively not compostable. Compost systems break down organic matter by generating heat created by good bacteria. While a well maintained at-home compost system gets hot enough to break down food and yard waste, it is simply not large enough to generate the kind of heat that’s necessary to break down plant-based plastic. And if you use a vermicomposting system, you can forget about worms eating your plant-based plastics. They couldn’t be less interested. In other words, if you chuck your compostable plastic straws and cups in the backyard compost pile, you’ll basically just have plastic litter sitting in an otherwise effective compost system. And, like, why?

So, to my local coffee shop, Trader Joe’s and the entire world, I say—cheers! Enjoy the tea.

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