Tag Archives: Composting

Compostable Plastics do not create compost

Compostable plastics do NOT create compost

If you are anything like me, you’ve no doubt heard about and thought about how wonderful the idea of compostable plastics sound. Plant based materials used as feedstock to make compostable plastics, that once used simply discard in the compost pile and voila, the plastics you just used has now become nutrient rich soil to help aid in the next generation of plant growth. It sounds so healthy and natural it must be good, right?

The major issue with “compostable plastics” is that they don’t make compost. What’s that, you say? That’s right, compostable plastics don’t breakdown and convert into compost or result in nutrient rich soil as the process and name would lead one to believe. This aspect of compostable plastics is extremely misleading. Let me explain.

The ASTM D6400 is the Standard Specification by which all compostable plastics strive to meet. Compostable plastics that claim to be certified compostable will no doubt have to pass the ASTM D6400 specification. Organizations like BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) provide 3rd party certifications that a compostable plastic product meets the requirements of the ASTM D6400 standard specification. Even California has product labeling legislation that requires any plastic item claiming to be compostable must meet the ASTM D6400 Standard Specification in order to make such claims. But what exactly are the requirements for meeting the ASTM D6400 specification?

ASTM D6400 includes a handful of requirements that address things like soil toxicity, disintegration, heavy metals and biodegradation. To understand what is left after “composting” compostable plastics, (which is biodegradation in an environment that has oxygen readily available to micro-organisms) let’s take a look at the portion of the ASTM D6400 that addresses biodegradation the rate and extent required in order for a compostable plastic item to pass/fail.

The requirement for a material to pass ASTM D6400 and be considered “compostable” is that the material must reach or exceed 90% conversion of the carbon within the material into carbon dioxide (CO2). In other words, 90% or more of the material would need to be turned into CO2 (converted by micro-organisms) during the time-frame of the test – 180 days. Given this requirement to convert a minimum of 90% of the carbon within the sample compostable plastic item into CO2 (gas), simple math at this point would tell us that the remaining carbon (that’s part of what makes nutrient rich soil) would be equal to or less than 10% of the total carbon making up that compostable plastic item. So basically 90% of the item will simply go up into the atmosphere as CO2 gas, it will not remain behind as soil.

For those who are new to composting or compost, the purpose and result of a natural and healthy composting process is nutrient rich soil (compost). This soil is made up of various organic materials and nutrients; nitrogen, potassium, microorganisms, humus (a carbon rich material) and other forms of carbon. Carbon is arguably the anchor to having nutrient rich soil as it helps to retain moisture and provides a foundation for all other microbial processes for optimizing healthy plant growth. With less than 10% of the carbon in a “compostable plastic” remaining as soil, there is little to no value as nutrient rich soil. Even worse, 90% or more of it was converted to greenhouse gas and sent into the atmosphere.

Compostable plastics may “compost” (biodegrade by micro-organisms in an oxygen environment) if placed in the right composting environment, but they do not create compost (nutrient rich soil).

Ithaca College bans disposable utensils from compost

Ithaca College bans disposable utensils from compost

By Faith Meckley — Staff Writer
Published: January 28, 2015

Ithaca College can no longer accept disposable forks, spoons and knives that are labeled as “compostable” into the compost collection bins, and all utensils must now be thrown into the trash.

Mark Darling, sustainability programs coordinator, said Cayuga Compost, the company that accepts and processes the college’s compostable waste, notified the college of the new ban and set a compliance date of Jan. 1.

The Ithacan reported April 9, 2014, that the utensils were not breaking down at Cayuga Compost, according to an interview with co-owner Mary Proctor. At the time, Proctor said Cayuga Compost had plans to test the utensils.

Bobby Seymour, compost operations and marketing manager at Cayuga Compost, said the ban at the operation currently encompasses all disposable plastics advertised to be compostable.

To address the problem, Cayuga Compost first confirmed that compost was being processed correctly at the facility, Seymour said, and then moved forward with obtaining samples from manufacturers and testing the cutlery.

“We’re putting them into our compost windows at different places, bringing them out at different dates and times, recording what the amount of degradation is, if any, and then putting them back in for well over the standard period,” he said.

The standard period Seymour refers to is 30–45 days, which he said is based on U.S. Composting Council definitions.

Seymour said the estimated cost of manually removing the cutlery contamination from Cayuga Compost’s windows was $21,000 for the year 2014.

“We came to the conclusion that unless and until manufacturers change or we can find truly compostable products that we had to make the decision to stop taking them,” Seymour said.

Both Darling and Seymour said this is an issue happening across the country, and Darling said he believes it is rooted in the lack of state legislation making a clear definition of “compostable.” Green Wave International Inc. manufactures the utensils used at retail locations on campus, like IC Square.

“They’re calling their product compostable because there isn’t a state law that says you can’t use the word compostable,” Darling said. “[Green Wave] misrepresented their product. A portion of their reason is it is compostable … and they’re saying that the whole product is therefore compostable, when in fact, it is not.”

John Calarese, executive director at Green Wave, said the product should break down in approximately 90 days. Green Wave’s website indicates that products will break down into finished compost in 120 days.

“Our product is probably the heaviest product out in the marketplace from all competitors involved,” Calarese said. “Our heavy, full-sized piece of cutlery will take more time to decompose because of the weight of the product, not the composition of the product.”

In response to Darling, Calarese said the product contains no plastic and is wholly compostable.

A study conducted in 2009 in Vermont by Green Mountain Compost tested nine brands of cutlery, eight of which were certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute. The noncertified product was from Green Wave, and it was the only product in the study that remained whole at the end of the testing.

Calarese said this test was old, and Green Wave has since earned BPI certification, which can be seen on the company’s website.

While Green Wave does have the BPI seal on its website, at the bottom of the product page in small print there is a specification that only their bagasse products, made from bamboo and sugar cane, are BPI certified. This does not include the cutlery.

Currently there are printed signs hung over waste receptacles reminding students and faculty to place the cutlery into the trash. Darling said his goal is to find a more permanent solution for the college by April 1, when event season on campus begins in full.

The ideal solution, he said, would be to offer reusable options to students.

“Whether it goes to the compost or to trash, you’re still throwing it away — that one piece that all that effort went through so you can use it once and throw it out,” Darling said.

For students who are motivated to find sustainable options, Darling suggested finding a personal reusable cutlery set to carry along. Such sets can be wooden, bamboo or metal. Offering personal cutlery sets for sale at the Bookstore, installing washing stations at places like IC Square for personal utensils and incentivizing students — similar to the discount received for using a mug instead of a paper cup for coffee — are all ideas Darling said he is considering with the help of students in the Resource and Environmental Management Program.

Junior Rebecca Newman, an Eco-Leader in REMP, said she thinks installing reusable utensils in retail locations will be cheaper for the college over time. She said properly marketing personal cutlery sets to students will be important.

“I think people need to think it’s cool to have this,” Newman said. “With the compostables, people feel slightly better when they use them … compost is great, but the even better alternative is to have reusables.”

Newman said educating students on the disposable cutlery ban and marketing reusable cutlery sets to students will be on REMP’s to-do list this semester.

Read original article here: http://theithacan.org/news/ithaca-college-bans-disposable-utensils-from-compost/

This is a good example of the need for more education in the area of sustainable plastics. It is important that products reflex the certifications that they get. Many times companies will get a product certified when the product that will go out into the market is different than what was submitted for certification. This is especially true in the compostable plastics products where the materials need to be rapidly broken down to meet the certification. This becomes a problem for the real world product because it means it does not have the physical properties needed to be effective.

The other side of this conversation is that many people inherently believe compost = good. For most of composting this would be an accurate belief as food and organic green and brown materials are broken down to create a rich soil. However, when using many compostable plastics (especially PLA) the end result is not nutrient rich soil and in fact what remains after a product meeting the ASTM D 6400 is of no value to the soil and can become toxic in high concentrations.

When it comes to the sustainability of our waste it will be required for all of us to increase our knowledge levels to understand the details of what materials are being used with packaging and what type of environment it will be disposed of in, and to make sure that the environmental claims of the performance of the product will in fact perform in the environment that the item will be disposed of in.

Is commercial compost killing your plants?

Commercial compost in California has caused the loss of a hand-full of crops including; tomatoes, peas, sunflowers, vegetables and daisies. The culprit? Herbicides in the compost. But the herbicides may be the least of your worries. With the continual push to divert materials from landfills and instead utilize commercial composting, your compost is now likely to contain pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, prescription drugs, as well as a slew of other toxins and pathogens – all of which could put you at risk.

Read the full article here:

I personally have noticed a drastic change in the look and quality of “compost” and “potting soil” that I buy compared to 30 years ago. It used to be that the compost was a rich dark color soil, slightly moist and no recognizable fragments. Now what they sell is a light colored, dry material full of wood particles. It looks more like slightly processed mulch than soil. The material does not retain water and my potted plants have a very limited life cycle. This article points out some of the reasons why….

However, with all the contamination issues – Why does the industry continue to try and move more materials into the “compostable” zone? (i.e. plastics, paper, etc)

Will New Green Guide Revisions Help or Hinder Efforts to Market Eco-Friendly Products?

Photo by J Bloom

In light of recent news that SunChips is pulling their compostable bag off supermarket shelves, and the release of the new green marketing standards, now’s a good time to get down to the nitty-gritty of labeling. Are labels like “eco-friendly”, “biodegradable”, “compostable”, and “recyclable” a good idea, or do they just muddy the waters? Is there really any way for consumers to know what they’re buying?

The SunChips bag was pulled because it is supposedly too noisy, interfering with the consumer experience. Online chitter-chatter over the decision suggests that people didn’t really mind the extra bag noise, and the ones who did might be willing to make some sacrifices because they felt the bag’s environmental benefits outweighed any inconvenience…or do they?

Here’s where some critics have, shall we say, made noise over the issue. The bag is marketed as being fully compostable—and like all PLA (Poly-Lactic Acid, derived from starch from corn or potatoes) plastics it technically is—in a commercial-grade composting facility, where temperatures are high enough and conditions are perfect enough to break it down. The fine print, if there were any, could read that unless the packaging is disposed of in such a facility, it isn’t going to break down in a timely manner. Since the majority of consumers don’t have access to these mega-composting facilities, are the bags—or any PLA plastics—a sustainable solution to the packaging, and subsequent waste, conundrum?

Photo Courtesy of Bookshelf Boyfriend

Not really, it seems. If thrown in the landfill or the home compost pile, these products aren’t going anywhere fast; if recycled, they can contaminate whole batches of otherwise recyclable waste. So what about customer perception? Most people who buy these products think they are making a sustainable choice, and are casting a vote for the planet with their consumer dollar, when it can be argued that in fact, these products aren’t much better for the environment than conventional plastic. Indeed, they may even create new problems. Mass production of PLA materials requires farmland to grow the corn to make the plastics, instead of for food production, which could lead to rainforest destruction and increased use of petrochemicals, among others. Finally, these plastics are compostable* (*read the fine print), but not necessarily biodegradable, which may cause confusion for the consumer, and such claims could be misleading.

What it really comes down to is semantics, and these labels have been the subject of debate for months on the federal level, with greenwashing being the primary motivation for the FTC to take a look at how products are being marketed. Revisions to the Green Guides were released this week, with the proposed updates aiming to help businesses “better align their product claims with consumer expectations”.

Photo courtesy of voteprime.

The updates specifically define what “compostable”, “(bio)degradable” and “recyclable” mean, and do a good job of laying it out in a two-page summary of the nearly 200-page document. If a product is to be marketed as “compostable”, then it should, according to the proposed standards, break down into usable compost in the same amount of time as other materials in the pile. The meaning of “degradable” is also clarified, saying that in order to be labeled as such, the product must completely decompose in a “reasonably short period of time”, or no more than one year.

So what does this all mean for companies developing and marketing green products, and the consumers spending hard earned dollars to buy them? The heart of the matter lies in transparency. If a company advertises any kind of environmental certification or label, they must be very clear about how the product delivers, and be able to substantiate such claims. Period. Will this require more work on the back end? Of course. Will it make a difference in the quality of sustainable products available on the market? We can only hope so.

If nothing else, these revisions will help reduce instances of greenwashing, and hopefully hold those companies making green claims to higher standards. Clarifying the definitions of eco-labels will also make it easier for consumers to make informed decisions—which at the end of the day, helps keep the process on track and moving forward.

Corn Lobbyists don’t get the final word

California’s governor vetoed SB-1454 despite its intent to clarify misleading labeling

The recent demise in California of legislative bill SB-1454 took some by surprise. This cleverly written piece of legislation was designed supposedly to clarify misleading labeling claims and would prevent the sale of plastics in California whose packaging is labeled not only biodegradable but also compostable. 

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JUNK SCIENCE: How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us

The book titled JUNK SCIENCE: How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us by Dr. Dan Agin was very interesting book. Dr. Agin has a Ph.D. in biological psychology and thirty years of laboratory-research experience in neurobiology and is an associate professor emeritus of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago.

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MICROBES: An Invisible Universe

microbesThe book titled MICROBES An Invisible Universe by Howard Gest was one of the most informative and interesting books I have read on the world of microbes. This book is 200 pages crammed full of detailed information about the history and the function of microorganisms, also known as microbes. The author, Dr. Howard Gest is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Microbiology and Adjunct Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Dr. Gest is widely recognized for his research on microbial physiology and metabolism.


The Ecology of microbes to one another and their surroundings is extraordinary with respect to the diversity of chemical and physical conditions that can be tolerated. Microbes thrive in extreme environments with regards to temperatures, high concentrations of salts and sugars, relative acidity, and with or without the presence of oxygen.


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Sorting out Biodegradable Plastics

There are three main categories of degradable plastics: biodegradable plastics, compostable plastics and degradable plastics.  One of the biggest contributions to the confusion surrounding the subject of degradable plastics is a combination of the lack of common definitions and the loose usage of these definitions.


The ASTM International, originally known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, is a standards organization, host to committee D20.96 on Environmentally Degradable Plastics and Biobased Products.  The ASTM maintains a Standard Terminology Relating to Plastics under their designation: D 883 – 08.  The following are the ASTM definitions for degradable plastics:


biodegradable plastics—a degradable plastic in which the degradation results from the action of naturally-occurring micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae.


compostable plastic—a plastic that undergoes biological degradation during composting to yield carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with other known compostable materials and leaves no visually distinguishable or toxic residues.


degradable plastic—a plastic designed to undergo a significant change in its chemical structure under specific environmental conditions resulting in a loss of some properties that may vary as measured by standard test methods appropriate to the plastic and the application in a period of time that determines its classification.


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