ZWH: Compostable Plastics? Not a Solution

August, 2017



The idea of compostable plastics is currently nothing more than ‘green happy talk.’

According to the Plastics Better Alternatives Now (BAN) List (researched and published by Surfrider, 5 Gyres and Upstream) single-use plastic food wrappers and containers account for 31.14 percent of plastic pollution in the environment—with no established recovery system. Single-use plastics became popular through the decades for their convenience and ease of use. Our reliance on them contributes to litter, takes space in the landfill, and worst of all, is part of a pervasive wasteful lifestyle with ever-lasting environmental impacts. 

Single use plastics are being referred to as the ‘new cigarettes’ in society because we are only beginning to understand the environmental and human health problems they cause.  Many environmental and health activists are now advocating for the chemical content and environmental impact of such items to be printed for all to see on their labels and packaging—just like cigarettes. 

Once a plastic container has been manufactured, it will remain on the Earth virtually forever; it cannot break down, and less than 14 percent of plastic packaging is actually recycled. Manufacturers have begun exploring different avenues for creating packaging that is better for the environment—namely by introducing biodegradable additives to petroleum based plastic products to render them “biodegradable” or “compostable”. This is not a real solution, however, because many of these products cannot break down without a high heat industrial composting facility—something that is not readily available here in Humboldt County and most parts of the U.S. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) published a report outlining their opposition to biodegradable additives in petroleum-based products; the following is extracted from their report:

“To beneficially complete the natural biological cycle, biodegradation should occur in a managed and controlled environment, such as an industrial composting operation, and the material must biodegrade in a manner that is non-toxic and harmless to human health and the environment in order to be considered compostable. Petroleum-based plastics made with the currently available biodegradability additives do not break down in such a manner; to date, these additives have not enabled any plastics to become fully compostable.”

This means that ‘compostable’ plastics do not decompose and return nutrients to the environment as part of a closed loop system—they still release toxins. Furthermore, packaging that is marketed as biodegradable or compostable cannot be recycled if the infrastructure to compost them properly is lacking. Therefore, the idea of compostable plastics is currently nothing more than ‘green happy talk.’ 

Zero Waste Humboldt conducted a food packaging analysis for the North Coast Co-op Prepared Foods Section to determine the best packaging with the least environmental impact—both petroleum-based and bio-based. Our research concluded that all forms of single-use packaging will end up in the landfill, due in part to our lack of a local recycling industry and large composting facility in our region. Therefore, composting and recycling do not absolve us of our responsibility to prevent wasteful single use plastics. Our best solution is to adopt new personal shopping habits, commit to new purchasing policies at the workplace, and local government polices that are aimed at reducing plastics in our waste stream.  It’s all about prevention and systems for reuse.

If you are interested in plastics and helping with public education, Zero Waste Humboldt is always looking for volunteers! Get involved!

Contact Zero Waste Humboldt at


Join the Zero Waste Effort at the North Country Fair

With the North Country Fair (NCF) just around the corner, Zero Waste Humboldt would like to recognize efforts made by NCF to reduce waste throughout the weekend. From public bike parking (located behind Pacific Outfitters) to waste diversion reduction stations, to pre-approved vendor materials, the North Country Fair is one of our greatest local models for a Zero Waste event. NCF encourages festival-goers to bike to the event, bring their own pint-sized cup for beer and also bring a fork for all
the delicious food! 

To join the Zero Waste Crew at the North Country Fair, email



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