Home-compostable – bane or boon for the industry?

Compost certifications can be a bit of a muddle, especially for consumers.  Will this newest category help clear things up?

There is a new kid on the certifications block.  It’s called home-compostable” and has arrived in many parts of the world.  

Products based on this standard include next-gen bio-based films and resins manufactured with processes that will allow these types of plastics to degrade in the typical home composting environment.

The US has yet to develop a certification for this new compostables category.  However, the products themselves (carrying European and other certification logos) are available online and at some brick and mortar retailers.

And just this past April, scientists at a US-based lab announced a related breakthrough in its own project.  It’s a plastic that can completely disintegrate, even in the wild, without fouling soil, air, or water.  Cambridge just announced the development of a home-compostable resin, too.  

With the increasing availability of universally-compostable materials comes the promise of clarity for individuals and businesses hoping to divert more organics away from landfills and incinerators.

Should the industry care about home-compostable?

Let’s give this one a resounding yes.  If an item can compost at home, it should compost in most professionally-managed operations, too – big or small, municipal or commercial, indoor or outdoor, basic or advanced technology.

Home-compostable sets the stage for more successful municipal and commercial composting efforts when the most common bio-plastics can be composted almost anywhere by almost anyone.  No need for consumers to read the fine print as long as an item carries a big “compostable” label.

This paves the way for increased flows of food waste streams from non-composting households, restaurants, and other commercial and institutional entities – good news for composting’s existing infrastructure.

Thanks to science, objectives like universal compostability and disappearing plastic bags hover brightly on the horizon.

Even the US military is getting excited about the potential of this new breed of plastic.

But wait, there’s more

New plastics aren’t the only developments casting a warm glow over composting.

Advances in optical sorting technologies now facilitate the separation of waste streams into individual components.  Once widely adopted, these types of developments should increase capture rates of everything from plastics to fibers to organics.

The ability to utilize technology to separate wheat from chaff at all stages of resource recovery can positively impact everything from source separation to MRF management to anaerobic digestion.

Along the way, composting benefits, too, as the recipient of higher processing volumes and lower contamination of the organics stream. 

When some are starting to ban compostable plastics, the introduction of universally compostable resins is more than timely.

Emphasis on consumer-friendly labeling, alluring consumer incentives, and the modernization of the recycling/composting industries are keys to maximizing resource recovery, creating efficiencies, and fostering true circular economies for organics.

Throwing up one’s hands and abandoning the recycling of any material is no solution, especially when new products and technologies are waiting just around the corner.

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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