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Why use compostable products if they end up in a landfill anyway?

Is green waste better than petroleum based waste (the majority of which cannot be recycled)? Our answer is most definitely yes!

The primary benefit of compostable products is that that they are made from plant-based raw materials. Crops like sugar cane and corn are used, which are annually renewable. Using compostable food packaging is an alternative to using petroleum based products – a raw material that take a long long time to generate and currently used at an unsustainable rate.

The compostability of the product is the second major advantage. Best-case scenario is that all your green waste gets composted. Green waste is any organic material that can be composted, like your kitchen scraps and compostable food packaging.

When green waste is treated as rubbish, it is “thrown away” or sent to landfill. When it is composted, it becomes a resource, an extremely valuable one in many communities in our country. The good news is that through the introduction of compostable packaging a greater awareness has arisen around Green Waste as a waste category, and we’ve seen canteens, restaurants, events and home users start to compost all of their green waste because of the introduction of compostable food packaging. We encourage our customers to set up their own facilities or else use companies who offer composting services such as the ones listed on our site.

We see the adoption of compostable packaging for food as part of the step towards reducing environmental impact. As much as we would like to see our products are being turned into lovely compost for plants, South African municipalities are still developing Recycling and Composting systems. So lets go through the scenarios to see what happens when you are finished with your compostable food packaging:

1. Compostable products end up in the compost bin

Great news! We’re on our way to getting some great compost.

2. Compostable products end up in the recycling

The bulk of Green Home products are made from sugarcane or bagasse. Bagasse products look most similar to paper products. If bagasse products end up being mixed up with paper in the recycling, it can be recycled with paper. In fact, our tub lids are made from a mixture of approx. 60% bagasse and 40% wood pulp. Even though this is possible, in most cases food contaminated products are rejected from the paper recycling process. A greasy pizza box, for example, will be rejected from paper recycling, as would used bagasse products.

Compostable plastic (PLA Plastic or cornstarch plastic) products look very similar to plastic. Some are embossed with the word “Compostable” but not everyone reads the packaging their food comes in. It is entirely possible that compostable products could be mistaken for paper or plastic and put into the recycling.

According to this article, a small amount of PLA entering the recycling stream won’t cause major contamination issues. The potential of a bulk load of PLA (clear cornstarch packaging) contaminating PET plastic recycling is small based on the scale it is currently used. Home users are the most likely source of potential introduction of PLA plastic to recycling. This is a very small market for us in South Africa. Food packaging has to be cleaned first before it is accepted into recycling. This tends not to happen at an event or in a canteen.

3. Compostable products end up being incinerated

Because compostable plastics are made from plant-based materials, no chemicals are released when they are burnt in an incinerator.

4. Compostable products end up in a landfill

When compostable products, or any other green waste ends up in a landfill, it needs to be exposed to moisture, oxygen and bacteria in order to biodegrade. If it does not get exposed to these conditions, it will continue to exist in the landfill for a very long time.  Many landfills are purposefully kept dry to minimise the amount of composting and the amount of methane released.

This article argues that it is still better to use compostable products even if the end up in a landfill or the recycling. We agree. For now, it is important to shift people from using plastic as the only option and to introduce new ways of dealing with waste.  As demand for these kinds of solutions rise, then we will hopefully see improvement in the management and resourcefulness of all compostable waste.

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