The Environmental Impact of Compostable Products

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The use of compostable products is now becoming mainstream, and it is necessary to know what makes compostables environmentally friendly.

There are a number of reasons why compostable products are useful to our environment, one of which is saving space in our landfills with rubbish that takes hundreds of years to break down.

Compostable products like compostable bags not only serve the environment because they are made from renewable and organic sources but help us save money as well. 

Environmental benefits of compostable products include:

  • Improve plant growth due to the residual products that are useful for the soil
  • Leave no toxic residue
  • Derived from organic renewable sources (plant-based)
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emission.

However, many products are claimed to be biodegradable. Is being biodegradable the same as being compostable? Let us shed light into this confusion.

Compostable vs Biodegradable Products

How accurate are the claims on biodegradable regarding their sustainability and environmental impact?

Biodegradables and Compostables

The difference between biodegradables and compostables may not be immediately apparent. But their underlying design and environmental impact have a great difference.

Biodegradables are materials that can be broken down by the action of living microorganisms like microbes. But no timeframe or conditions, such as environment, temperature and moisture, are specified.

On the other hand, compostability can be measured and certified, and stringent standards govern compostable products.

How Compostable Plastics Decompose

Compostable plastics are plant-based plastics that quickly break down into natural substances under a well-controlled environment. The process is dependent on the temperature and moisture levels being at ideal levels for bacteria and microorganisms to work on the material.

Composting is a natural process that turns unwanted organic waste into a valuable plant nutrient. This process harnesses the action of microorganisms to consume and break down organic waste and promote soil fertility and biodiversity.

Compostable plastic products, like those from Bonnie Bio Australia, decompose at an accelerated phase, around 2 to 6 months, leaving no toxic material to the environment.

Why Biodegradables Can Still Harm the Environment

Degradable plastics are also referred to as biodegradable or oxo-degradable plastic. These are actually conventional plastics manufactured from fossil fuels with a pro-oxidant additive mixed in.

This specific additive enables the rapid degradation of the product into smaller particles. It works via photo-degradation, where the light from the sun acts upon the plastic and breaks it down into smaller fragments.

Fossil fuel, as we know of, is the processed material extracted from the remains of dead plants and animals buried beneath the earth’s crust. Natural gas, coal and petroleum are examples of fossil fuels, hence, not highly renewable.

Biodegradable plastics eventually turn into microplastics that break down and become fragmented. Hence, they participate in the burgeoning global concern of pollution and human health issues because they leave toxic residues and harm soil quality. In addition, they contaminate conventional plastic recycling because they bring in additives that make the end product brittle.

Benefits of Compostable Products

  • Divert Organic Waste From Landfills

Compostables allow a single collection of waste leading to an added benefit, which is reducing the environmental impact of organic materials in landfills.

One million tons of organic waste come from the food industry in Australia alone. Most of it goes to landfills.

  • Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Organic wastes in landfills are oxygen-starved. When they break down, they release a dangerous greenhouse gas called methane. Methane is 28 times more toxic to the atmosphere than carbon. Composting food waste along with compostable packaging has the great benefit of combating climate change.

  • Renewable

Besides being compostable, plant-based materials are renewable. For example, bagasse is a material sourced from sugarcane pulp, a byproduct of the sugarcane industry. Instead of being burnt, this material is recovered and gets a second life in the food-service sector before being recovered, composted and returned to the soil as rich nutrients for more plants.

  • Composting for the Environment

Ecosystems all over the world are now under extreme pressure. Overpopulation and pollution are the leading causes of environmental pollution. Surveys of biodiversity reveal a grim picture. But composting is one strategy to help restore the balance.

The following are a few examples of how composting benefits soils, plants and animal life.

  • It improves soil structure and quality, promoting plant growth and water retention.
  • Composting traps carbon and promotes beneficial microorganisms that make the soil fertile and productive.
  • It decreases human reliance on chemical fertilisers and mitigates the effect of contaminated water runoff in bodies of water.

Composting creates a valuable resource that establishes sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices.

Guaranteed Quicker Breakdown

Products rated as compostable have been extensively tested to ensure they break down in composting facilities within a regulated timeframe.

For industrially compostable materials like compostable plastics, that timeframe is 12 weeks at 55 °C to 65 °C, contingent on the method used.

For home compostables, such as fibre-based material, that timeframe is 180 days because of the colder conditions in home compost bins.

Australian Standards for Compostability

Home composts are vastly different from an industrial-grade facility. However, the core requirements for certification remain the same.

For materials to be certified the AS 5810-2010 standard, they must undergo stringent tests conducted by an accredited third party. Given the differences between a home compost and industrial compost facility, the timeframe for testing lasts 12 months.

The product must register a minimum of 90% biodegradation and zero toxic effect to compost plants and earthworms. The product itself should also contain more than 50% organic material.

Conclusion

Recycling is impractical and even impossible for fibre-based products. Furthermore, it is impossible to scrape off the food from the packaging, which leads to both ending up in a landfill.

But compostable packaging for serving food means that everything can go in the same waste bin: the organics category. This allows the capture of more food waste and reduces contamination in other recycling streams. It also opens the opportunity to compost a massive portion of the one million tons of organic waste generated by the foodservice and hospitality industry in Australia. At the same time, it recovers and recycles an estimated 10 billion individual single-use disposables.

Whether the goal is for convenience, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving soil health or combating plastic pollution, compostables are the future and here to stay.