Many of us share the goal of reducing the harm we do to the world around us and the animals with whom we share it. One of the ways we can pursue this goal is through the rejection of single-use plastic products in favor of compostable alternatives. While avoiding plastics–particularly single-use plastics–is a great start, there are a few factors that we must consider to ensure we make the swap as effectively as possible.
When choosing a paper straw at a restaurant or a paper bag at the grocery store, you can easily ensure that the straw or bag returns to the earth in a sustainable way by composting it. Any backyard composting setup should be able to handle paper or cardboard, so these products are excellent replacements for their single-use plastic alternatives.
But not all single-use compostables are so simple. Many of the single-use cups and lids made from compostable plastics can’t actually be easily broken down in a backyard system. These products require much higher temperatures to break down, and even the best backyard composting setup will be unlikely to reach those temperatures.
Let’s walk through the life cycle of a single-use compostable product that isn’t able to be composted in a simple compost pile. We’ll compare it to a paper or cardboard single-use product, as well as to a single-use plastic. Once you’re armed with all the information possible about compostable products, you will be able to make more informed choices about what kinds of products you accept and how you dispose of them.
Production of Single-Use Products: A Beginning-of-Life Comparison
To begin, the creation of single-use products has its own environmental costs. To create a piece of plastic cutlery, for example, requires the extraction of fossil fuels which are a key component in the production of plastic. It also involves the creation of nurdles–small plastic pellets which are created in large numbers and then formed into products like plastic cutlery. Here at Humane Action Pittsburgh, we are working hard to protect regional waterways from nurdle pollution, because nurdles can cause major ecological problems if they are spilled into rivers or oceans, and the extraction of fossil fuels has its own environmental costs.
The production of a single-use compostable fork is different. The polymers used to create biodegradable plastic cutlery come from plants like corn or potatoes. No fossil fuel extraction is necessary for their creation.
Wooden or bamboo single-use utensils also are available, and while the creation of these products does require trees or bamboo be harvested, these renewable resources can be replenished much more quickly than fossil fuels. Deforestation is a real issue for the environment and for the animals whose habitats are threatened, but because bamboo is a very fast-growing plant, it can be harvested in very sustainable ways.
End of Life for Single-Use Products: A Comparison
So far, the single-use biodegradable plastics may seem like the best answer, since they are derived from crops we already cultivate and don’t require deforestation or fossil fuel extraction. However, as we progress forward in the life cycle of these products, we encounter other factors such as the end-of-life carbon footprint and how these products can ultimately impact animal life.
Many of us are already aware of the problems with plastic pollution. After you eat your salad with your plastic fork, it goes to the trash and then to the landfill. Of course, not all plastic makes it to the landfill due to litter, but even if it does, it still spends thousands of years sitting in the landfill. If it gets into bodies of water, it can cause an even bigger problem the magnitude of which is illustrated by the great pacific garbage patch. Sea birds and marine animals can eat small pieces of plastic by mistake or become trapped or injured by them. They can break apart making them very difficult to collect and redirect back to a landfill. Lisa’s blog post for Respect for Fish Day earlier this month took an in-depth look at the harm plastic pollution is doing to marine life.
Biodegradable plastic sounds like a great alternative–and it can be. However, it can also pose some of the same problems as plastics if it isn’t sent to an industrial composting facility. Biodegradable plastic can still wind up in the water or ocean. If it does make it to the landfill, many consumers assume that the product will simply decompose naturally. However, in the absence of the right conditions, these products may not break down for a very long time, so they can still pose a threat to animal life. But these products, if sent to the landfill, pose yet another problem. The decomposition process these products go through in a landfill releases methane gas, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
Cutlery made from bamboo or wood can be composted with relative ease. If you have a simple backyard pile, you might want to break your chopstick or fork down into smaller pieces if you’re in a hurry for finished compost, but even thrown in as-is (with some food scraps to serve as a nitrogen source and some periodic turning to introduce oxygen), this carbon-rich material will eventually break down into nutritious soil that can be used in your yard, garden, or indoor planters.
The Bottom Line
While the efforts of business and consumers to avoid single-use plastics and adopt compostable products definitely deserve recognition, it’s important that consumers know how these products are made and what their end of life looks like. As industrial composting services become more available, compostable plastics have a role to play in a more sustainable future. Until those services are more widely available, consumers trying to do the best they can for the planet may want to reach for bamboo, wooden, paper, or cardboard alternatives.
And, of course, if you aren’t composting yet, consider starting! There are a few composting services available in Pittsburgh if you don’t have the space to do it yourself, but if you have even a small yard, consider giving back-yard composting a try.