Or are they just hanging out in a landfill?
Now that I’ve openly admitted to being a tree hugging hippie, friends and acquaintances love to share with me the environmentally friendly things they are doing (which I love to hear about, so keep them coming).
One thing that I often hear is, ” I’ve switched over to compostable __________.”
(insert products such as straws, cups, plates, bags, etc. into the blank)
That was music to my ears… Until I realized what was actually happening.. “That’s great! Does that mean you now have curbside compost collection in your neighborhood or you started a compost pile in your backyard?” I’d ask.
“No. Why do you ask?” They inquire, with slightly puzzled looks.
“How are you disposing of this compostable item?” I further examine.
“In the landfill trash?” They answer, confused and unsure.
Yikes! While I love that we are switching over from plastic to compostable products, it’s becoming clear that manufacturers aren’t doing a good job educating the public on how to properly dispose of these products. As a result, we are not reaping the benefits of their compostable properties.
Compostable items don’t come with any instructions. Yes, composting is a bit different depending on the municipality you live in. But the basic idea is the same and some guidance would be wonderful to have, especially for those who are new to composting.
Compostable products will simply say “compostable” on the product or on their box. Some have additional fine print, “Must be composted in a commercial composting facility.” But it is fine print, so the chances of someone actually reading it, are pretty slim. How much more impactful and instructional would it be if the products said, “Do not throw in landfill trash!”?
Especially considering that throwing these items in the landfill trash is what most people will do. It’s what we’ve been taught to do with all of our trash since childhood. (The millenial generation certainly did not learn anything about composting at school.)
Unfortunately, landfills are not designed to break down waste, even compostable waste. Landfills are designed to store it (for future generations to deal with). Landfills are lined with a liner so that the toxic chemical soup doesn’t leak into the ground. Trash is piled on the liner and once full, the landfill is sealed so that oxygen can’t get in.
Yet, oxygen is necessary for composting to occur.
Without oxygen, we limit the types of bacteria that can live in the landfill to a variety called anaerobic bacteria. These bacteria do digest and chomp up some of the waste in the landfill, but they do so extremely slowly (think hundreds of years).
Not to mention, when these bacteria do snack on our trash, they burp out greenhouse gases that heat up our planet. So if you send your compostable plate, straw, diaper, bag, etc. to a landfill, it will not compost. It will continue to exist in the landfill for hundreds of years (much like plastic products).
This completely defeats the purpose of using compostable products, which were made to degrade rather than sit in a landfill.
So what is the appropriate way to dispose of compostable products? Your backyard compost pile might be one of those places, but a lot of compostable products require a commercial composting facility to degrade. (You can check for that fine print!)
What happens at a composting facility is very different than what happens at the landfill.
In the composting facility your used compostable products will likely end up in a vessel. Inside this vessel, the compostable materials get a nice breeze of oxygen, which encourages the proliferation of a bacterial variety called aerobic bacteria.
Aerobic bacteria chomp away at and digest this compostable material rather quickly (a year or two depending on size of compost pile) and don’t release greenhouse gases. Instead, they create rich, luscious fertilizer that we can use in our gardens–which I’d say is a much better deal than the landfill and greenhouse gases.
I’d also point out that often, making compostable products takes way more energy and water than making a plastic product, so by not letting the compostable product decompose as the manufacturer intended it to, we are essentially wasting all of this extra water and energy.
So kudos to you for choosing to use a compostable product rather than non-degradable plastic. Just remember to dispose of your compostables in the compost collection bin and not the landfill trash bin. (Or check with the manufacturer to see if the product would degrade in a backyard compost pile.)
In Central Texas, the city of Austin has a curb-side compost collection programs in several neighborhoods (the remaining neighborhoods should have composting within the next year).
If you don’t have curb-side compost pickup, here are some other composting facilities in Texas.
Or contact Break It Down to get compost pick-up in your office.
Happy Zero Wasting!