Compostable products? Not even close

Climate Voices

Compostable products? Not even close

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Bioplastics, pipe dreams, marketing scams, and the truth

I have some bad news: Your compostable products are not actually compostable. I mean, they are theoretically, under the correct conditions and ensuring you have the right machinery—but, unfortunately, neither of those things are generally available in the United States of America. 

This is why the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation has declared that anything labeled “compostable” will not be accepted in its green bins. Additionally, these products cannot even be recycled because they may contaminate the recycling stream. 

For now, your compostable products are nothing more than more trash.


From LA Sanitation

A lot of people I know are not aware of this fact. I don’t blame them. When California rolled out “mandated organics recycling” last year, we didn’t get a lot of information about what that meant.

What were “organics”? What happened to the stuff that went into our green bins? Nobody knew. They didn’t really tell us. 

Whatever this is probably does not belong in the green bin.

The real problem, though, is a little more insidious. It’s not just that our waste infrastructure hasn’t quite caught up to the promises of our most ambitious marketing teams (“backyard compostable!”). It’s that we’re using “compostable” products to repeat the consumption errors of plastic.

I’m talking, of course, about single-use products.

No matter how a product is made or where it can be thrown away, buying stuff to use once is just not going to be great for the planet. 

Compostable products, specifically, still require vast resources in order to produce at scale, and “scale” has profound environmental implications. Given that, we should utilize everything we need to buy to the maximum threshold of its capacity.

From Burbank’s recycling center

A note on bioplastics

The majority of products that advertise themselves as compostable are made from polylactic acids (PLAs). PLAs are produced by fermenting sugars from crops like corn or potato and converting them into lactic acid. 

Broadly speaking, this process produces significantly less emissions than petroleum-based plastics. However, as I noted above, there are still environmental costs to consider. 

Is this product offering you a “green” version of an existing, high-resource consumer habit, like “to go” coffee or salad delivery? If so, it’s probably a scam.

Growing crops requires land and water. Conversion requires energy. Transportation and distribution utilize resources, too. 

It’s also important to acknowledge that bioplastics still cause pollution. They don’t biodegrade on their own. They need to be run through a specific chemical process in order to become “available” for biodegradation. Absent that process, they will pollute the environment (clog waterways, choke animals) the same as any other form of plastic. I’ve written more comprehensively on different compostable products and their environmental implications here.

Cassie Marketos, Kevin Spring and other volunteers break down donated and discarded vegetables and Valentine’s Day roses at the Edendale Grove Community Compost Hub in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Photo courtesy: Dana Cowin/Progressive Hedonist

What about dog poop bags?

This is the question I get the most. If you’ve gotten this far, my sense is that you already know my answer. “Compostable” dog poop bags only work if you are able to drop your pet waste at a specialized municipal composting facility. Otherwise, they’re just trash.

Ultimately, I recommend using bags made from upcycled plastic versus “compostable” materials, in order to attempt the smallest environmental impact. If you’re curious for more information, I wrote a primer on dog poop bags, too.

A sustainable future means we have to significantly adjust our expectations for convenience.

In general, it is very worth looking up the compost and recycling specifications for your particular municipality. There is so much variation across cities that it’s hard to give prescriptive advice. 

Cassandra Marketos. Photo courtesy: Dana Cowin/Progressive Hedonist

I also understand that it is unrealistic to expect every shopper to extensively research each material and production process for any given purchase. That’s why I offer a more abstracted principle to guide you through the density of green claims on supermarket shelves these days: 

Is this product offering you a “green” version of an existing, high-resource consumer habit, like “to go” coffee or salad delivery? If so, it’s probably a scam. Put it back.

The ubiquity of plastic adjusted us quickly to takeaway coffee and salads, disposable silverware, an abundance of bottled waters—but, in reality, a sustainable future means we have to significantly adjust our expectations for convenience. We need to buy less, use less, reuse more, and, of course!, compost the rest.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in “The Rot” on Substack. 

Written by

Cassandra Marketos

Cassandra Marketos is a Los Angeles-based compost artist, writer, and community volunteer. She works with neighbors to gather food waste before it goes to landfills; to build and maintain composts; and to share insights on the ways rot sustains life. She writes "The Rot" on Substack. Her "Compost This Book" is on the way from Timber Books.