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The Truth About "Compostable" Plastic

We often see compostable, plant-based plastics being touted as a sustainable alternative to traditional, petroleum-based plastics. But have you ever wondered exactly what part of these new plastics are "compostable"? As Khala & Company is dedicated to protecting our planet's future and providing you with the resources and knowledge to eliminate plastic, in this blog post we want to dive into the truth about compostable plastic.

Since the rise of single-use plastic in the 1950’s, humans have created 9 billion tons of plastic. Only about 9% of that 9 billion tons has adequately been recycled. The rest is in our landfills and oceans. In recent years, compostable plastic has come onto the scene as a solution to the plastic crisis. But is compostable plastic the sustainable alternative we think it is?

crumpled water bottles tinted green

What is “Compostable” Plastic?

Compostable plastics are derived from plant-based materials such as starch, corn, soy and more. Like traditional plastic, compostable plastic is formed by chains of bonded hydrogen and carbon molecules called polymers. In compostable plastic, these polymers are from naturally occurring materials. However, this is not an indication of how the material will break down in the environment.

The compostability of a material depends entirely on the chemical structure and not the raw material. Compostable plastics are engineered the same as traditional petroleum-based plastics. That is: the molecular structure of plant-based and petroleum-based plastics are essentially the same.

The Truth...

1. Compostable Plastics Need A Special Industrial Facility 

To be considered compostable, a material needs to be able to break down into water, carbon, or biomass indistinguishable from the compost without any trace of toxic residue. 

A bioplastic won’t compost in your backyard or at a regular commercial composting facility. It needs just the right amount of temperature (122F°) and time (+180 days) to break down to compost. And it’s not likely your local compost center is set up for such a task. Most compost centers are designed for yard waste like branches and leaves. Even now, only 3% of municipal compost centers can accept more complex food waste materials. Without access to the proper facility, compostable plastic is just like any other plastic.

2. Compostable Plastics Don't Biodegrade

For a material to be biodegradable, it must be capable of breaking down with help from micro-organisms. All carbon-based polymer chain plastics don’t biodegrade. They photodegrade.

Photodegradation occurs when ultraviolet light and infrared radiation from the sun break down plastic into smaller and smaller fragments. Many bioplastics won’t degrade at all if they end up in the ocean, because not enough light can reach it to break it down. Without the appropriate industrial composting facility to aid in its degradation, compostable plastic will behave like petroleum-based plastics. They will fragment into microplastics and stick around for some years.

3. Compostable Plastics Don’t Mix with Recyclable Plastic 

Not all plastics are suited for recycling. Only some types, such as Plasticized polyvinyl chloride (PPC), High-density polyethylene (HDPE), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) can be recycled. Compostable plastic should not be put in with the recycling bin. Doing so contaminates the entire recycling batch, and all of it is sent to the landfill, which defeats the purpose of composting and recycling.

Zero Waste is the Best Solution!

For compostable plastic to firmly be an effective alternative, cities need to expand their compost programs. Many businesses have switched to compostable plastic packaging and take-away bags, boxes, cutlery. But without the infrastructure to support their efforts, it doesn’t do much to help the environment.

The best solution to the plastic crisis is to move away from all single-use plastic items and move towards zero waste through recyclable or compostable reusables, like Khala & CO's zero waste provisions.

What is more, just like our zero waste provisions, the packaging they come in is designed with easy recycling and compostability in mind. Our Khala Cloths boxes are made by a family-owned business here in Colorado from post-consumer recycled paper; No new trees are cut down to create our packaging. Creating something new from recycled materials is an amazing way to go zero waste because it keeps the materials in use and out of our landfills. When you're done with our packaging it can be recycled or composted. From Mother Earth, back to Mother Earth.

Now that you know the truth about "compostable" plastic, you can make more informed decisions on your journey to zero waste. Every little action helps our planet's future.

By Grace Poat

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Eco-Friendly Swaps to Go Zero Waste
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Homemade Ginger Beer
A special recipe from Asa McKee, Co-Founder and CEO.