Civil Eats Misses the Mark on Compostable Packaging’s Potential

While we applaud Civil Eats’ commitment to “critical thought about the American food system,” their recent article on compostable food packaging takes far too narrow of an approach, and ultimately fails to provide readers with an appropriately holistic view of the issue. Unfortunately, nearly the entire article is spent focusing on sources opposed to using compostable packaging as viable alternative to conventional plastics.

It appears the authors have already written off the benefits compostable plastics and packaging have to offer, citing the very issues producers have forthrightly acknowledged as challenges they aim to overcome through innovation. We all agree that a shift away from conventional plastics will require major changes to how we think about waste and material use, but any recognition of this reality should be followed by a call to arms, not an admission of defeat. Readers deserve to hear both sides of the argument, so we have decided to respond to some of the misleading claims in the article:

MISLEADING: With a proper waste management system in place, the use of compostable packaging offers numerous benefits to the environment and economy, from “cradle” to “grave.” For instance, bio-based compostable plastics are made from plants, which absorb carbon from the atmosphere – unlike their petroleum-based predecessors, which do the exact opposite, releasing carbon previously sequestered deep underground into the atmosphere.

FOCUS ON SOLUTIONS: We can address this issue with better labeling of compostable products, more consumer education, and an overhaul of our waste management system. This won’t be easy, but it’s a worthwhile challenge, and we’re up to the task of moving us in that direction.

UNREALISTIC: We also agree with reducing and reusing, but consumer behaviors shouldn’t be expected to change overnight – these things take time. In the meantime, we should be finding ways to make the plastics and packaging we do use more sustainable.

WE AGREE, BUT: We should be mobilizing to change this reality, moving to a circular economy that also creates jobs. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), “on a per-ton basis, composting a ton of waste sustains four times as many jobs” as sending that same ton of waste to a landfill or incinerator. The U.S. EPA also estimates that composting operations generate twice as many jobs as landfills.

OLD NEWS: We encourage you to read our response to Greenpeace’s flawed report here

THIS CAN BE FIXED: The long-term environmental benefits of an efficient composting infrastructure are worth the short-term challenges. More accurate labeling on these items as well as better consumer education can greatly improve the situation. In return, we can divert compostable municipal waste from landfills to composting facilities that will generate a product that improves soil health, water quality, carbon storage, and a reduction in methane emissions from conventional landfills.

INDUSTRY EVOLVES: They’re right – the use of PFAS chemicals in consumer products and materials is a serious issue. Thankfully, our industry has moved swiftly in response. For example, the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) has already changed its certification standards to omit products containing PFAS. As a result, it will not be long before these chemicals have effectively been regulated out of the market.

LET’S ENCOURAGE INNOVATION: It should be noted that this claim is based on one life-cycle analysis, but we believe that innovation should be unleashed to continue improving the sustainability profile of compostable materials. What we do know is that these products are made from plants that remove carbon from the atmosphere, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and provide a product that doesn’t persist in the environment. We have discussed the many benefits of compostable materials here

FOCUS ON THE POSITIVES: It should be noted that non-compostable plastics are the leading contaminant of compostable organic matter. With a major shift in our waste management infrastructure and simplification of our waste streams, we can ensure that more organic waste ends up in composting facilities overall, regardless of whether they are food waste or compostable packaging. Additionally, the ability to breakdown compostable packaging should be seen as a win itself because it reduces the materials that persist in the environment and harm our ecosystems.