If the package says compostable, proceed with caution

There are a growing number of products making compostability claims.  But, sadly, the word “compostable” on the package is not a guarantee.

In an age when anyone can claim almost anything about a product and get away with it, fake certifications – imaginary marks and logos that manufacturers hope consumers will think are certifications – abound.  

While products can obtain third-party certification for compostability, there is no legal requirement that they have this certification before claiming their product is “compostable.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission website, advertising must be “truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.”

But somewhere along the way, the FTC seems to have changed the definition of the words “truth in advertising” without informing the public.

White glue is used instead of milk in cereal commercials, the fast food burger from the local drive-thru is half the size of its TV counterpart, and greenwashing has become a favored tool of unscrupulous manufacturers.

Saying a product is compostable is not the same as having that product certified as such by a legitimate certification agency.  Having someone on the manufacturer’s staff “verify” the product meets a specific ASTM standard is not the same as third-party certification.

In this day and age of lax FTC oversight over advertising language, consumers need to be extra cautious about compost–related claims.

Caveat emptor … is that seal legit?

Beware of manufacturers who make up their own “compostable” logos to fool the public into thinking their product has been vetted by a real certification entity.

When in doubt, pull out your phone and look them up before adding the package to your shopping cart.

Seals on the package should indicate testing and certification from legitimate third-party agencies like the Biodegradable Products Institute  and OK Compost.

A manufacturer certifying with a bona fide agency will be proud of that association and name the certifier on the product, in its shopping site product descriptions, and/or on its own website.

If that info is missing, give the item and manufacturer a pass.

Can your community compost compostables?

If you are not 100% sure your community is served by a high-rate composting operation that accepts compostable plastic, don’t buy “compostable” at all.

Even cardboard or paper products can be lined or coated with a bio-resin that requires an advanced composting process for biodegradation.

You won’t be able to compost the item or packaging at home, and it can’t be recycled any other way.  In fact, if a bioplastic gets tossed into the wrong bin, a compostable plastic is a contaminant for recyclers of traditional plastic.

Check out your city or county website or contact the local recycling coordinator to find out exactly what materials can or cannot be composted in your community.

Grappling with the infamous #7 PLA recycling code

What was the plastics industry thinking when it stuck compostable plastic into this recycling hodgepodge?

It wasn’t … thinking of recycling, that is. The industry says their category numbers are resin codes, not recycling codes. They identify different types of polymers. Each polymer recycles using a different method or technology. And #7 PLA is no exception.

A few years back, modifications made the symbols a little less recycling-forward. Recycling’s ubiquitous “chasing arrows” triangle that once outlined each number changed. It’s now a solid line to further distinguish the codes from recycling symbols.

Motivation for the mod? All resins do not recycle in all communities. The standards lords wanted to make sure everyone understood this simple truth.

2019 certified compostable logoBut people use them for recycling. That makes them – albeit ipso facto – recycling symbols.

The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) and U.S. Composting Council (USCC) work to dispel the confusion. They promote a unique symbol for compostables. This logo indicates a product, container, or packaging certified compostable by the BPI.

Know all RIC Codes, not just #7 PLA

Resin Indicator Codes (RICs) 1 through 6 identify specific plastic types. Everything else gets lumped together in the plastics proxy for the kitchen junk drawer — RIC #7/Other. When compostable resins joined the family, they landed in the junk drawer, too.

Code 7 compostable — a.k.a. #7/PLA — indicates a plant-based resin that will degrade under certain conditions. Unfortunately, a landfill isn’t one of them, though that’s where most of them end up. They’re not very “biodegradable” in the wild, either.

In truth, few communities recycle any Code 7 plastics.  Code 7 compostables require processing at a modern, high-rate composting facility. But there just aren’t that many around.  Even a #7/PLA composter might require in-house degradation testing if the plastic is not BPI-certified.

Compounding the problem, Code 7s are showing up in recycling streams for Nos. 1-6. In these bins, a Code 7 plastic represents a contaminant. One misplaced container can destroy an entire recycling batch if not removed. No. 7 /O (Other) will also contaminate an otherwise compostable No. 7/PLA stream.

Bottom line: pay attention to those RIC codes. Don’t assume any plastic is recyclable. Determine which resins the community does recycle, first. This is true for No. 7/Other and No. 7/PLA, too.  If not on the local “accepted” list, make sure the resin doesn’t wind up in a recycle or compostables bin. Better yet, choose a product that can recycle where you live.

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