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Too often in a world in which people are wanting to do their best for the good of the planet, we are being misled for the good of commerce. Corporations have caught onto to the fact that consumers have begun to respond to green taglines like “compostable” and “recyclable”, so they are quick to use them on products and/or product packaging. Unfortunately, sometimes there is a lot more we should know about these labels before buying in.

More disturbing is that we are being sold these concepts as sustainable solutions: a reduction in our dependence on fossil fuels, a decrease in the amount of trash we send to landfills, a clean choice for those who care. The problem is that, as with “organic” produce, the terminology was almost immediately distorted and diluted when the motivation became profit rather than the environment. Within the industry, what exactly do compostable, biodegradable, degradable, recyclable, and plant-based mean?

Our consciously spent dollars are not always supporting the good causes we think they are.

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Source: Umberto Salvagnin/Flickr

Questioning Renewable Resources

To put it bluntly, not all renewable resources are created equally, and oftentimes they aren’t actually as renewable as we are led to believe. Corn is a great and all-too-familiar example. Of course, we can grow more corn, so it is a “renewable resource”. However, the industrialized production of corn relies on gas-dependent machinery and petroleum-based agrochemicals. Without these, we can’t produce or harvest the overabundance of corn used as a renewable resource. Do we really need to add to monoculture disaster by destructively growing materials to create plastic?

Comparing Biodegradable and Degradable

With composting recognized by many as a very green option for handling waste efficiently, adding a biodegradable tag to items has given companies a PR jolt. Biodegradable items can be broken down by living organisms. The item goes through a complete chemical change. However, the term can still be applied to items that are not compostable because, technically, they will eventually break down but not in a timespan consistent with composting. Just because something is biodegradable doesn’t mean we can compost it.

We now even have “degradable” labels, which is a deceiving way of saying something is not biodegradable. Degradable items are capable of breaking down into smaller pieces of whatever material they are made from. In other words, a plastic bag that breaks up into tiny pieces over time is degradable. The plastic is still there and still plastic, but it has degraded.

Defining Compostable

Another deceptive case of labeling is claiming items are compostable. Corporations know that consumers envision that plant-based plastic cups going into their kitchen compost bin and disappearing. But, that’s not what happens. Many “compostable” items, particularly plastics, require industrial composting systems that are constantly turned and kept at high temperatures for extended periods of time. If these facilities aren’t available to the person buying a questionably advertised “compostable” product, then it just goes to the landfill.

“Compostable” plastics are also sometimes completely composed of petroleum products that can be composted, a solution that’s better than petrochemical products that can’t be composted but hardly the solution we think we are getting. To add to the disappointment, these items often can’t be recycled. Oxo-biodegradable (the petroleum-based compostables) plastics cannot be recycled while plant-based plastics, like PLA, require special recycling for #7 plastics that are typically offered.

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Source: Bill Smith/Flickr

Rethinking Recycling

While recycling is possibly a better option than the landfill, it’s still not a viable choice for sustainability. The production of packaging or products is very energy extensive, and the recycling process of breaking those materials back down into something usable can be even more so. The embodied energy of some recycled things is quite high, so we’d do better to simply avoid creating the waste altogether. This, of course, is the “reduce” part of the three Rs,and that’s the best option.

Furthering this issue, the recycle label that many products or packages have is also grossly misrepresented, such as with PLA plastics. Technically, these plant-based plastics can be recycled, but the reality is they usually aren’t, even when the public attempts to do so.  Much of what we put in the recycling bin ends up in the landfill for various reasons. Relying on recycling as a garbage solution is way outdated.

The Better Solution

In other words, the better solution is to simply avoid one-use packaging and throwaway products. There are so many reusable options out there for us now, and that’s the way forward, not plant-based, biodegradable or compostable plastics (and the like). Instead, we have to do our part, as consumers, of adjusting our demands so that we aren’t buying these things. The answer is not to replace the problem with a different one. It is to eliminate the problem.

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