Until recently, the United States was beginning to mitigate the human impact on the environment, recognizing that we were slowly destroying Mother Earth. However, United Nations-based studies from land to sea and air provided by the IPCC showed us that we needed to act fast if we were ever going to turn around and overcome the hundreds of years of bad ecological stewardship.
But since COVID-19, restaurants have converted to selling more food options to-go than ever before. Now, Styrofoam, plastic, and aluminum to-go containers overwhelm landfills, polluting our streets, oceans, and waterways. So, the problem we had been trying to solve got much worse than before.
As hospitality industry members, it's our burden to switch to eco-friendly compostable to-go containers, cups, plates, straws, and utensils. We need to move the needle back in the right direction towards a more sustainable industry.
What's the difference between biodegradable and compostable?
Biodegradable and compostable seem like two interchangeable words, but they're very different from each other. In simplest terms, they can be defined as:
Biodegradables are plant, animal, and natural mineral-based products that undergo natural degradation over time with the help of microorganisms like fungi, bacteria, and algae.
Biodegradables also include papers, boxes, and bags, which will break down over time, eventually becoming microscopically consumable.
Compostable materials are products that similarly break down in a natural setting made explicitly for composting, causing no harm to the environment, such as leaving visible, distinguishable, or toxic residues.
Certified compostable materials must be 90% broken down in 84 days in industrial composting conditions.
So, what's the difference?
While biodegradable materials return to nature, nearly disappearing, compostable things leave behind humus – a dark and complex material, integral to soil health and chocked full of nutrients that benefit the growth of plants and trees.
Figure 1 Infographic Credit: UrthPact
Benefits of composting
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!
By turning trash into compost, you can reduce up to 30% of landfill waste, reuse it as compost, and recycle it back into your garden as a natural, organic fertilizer for your flowers, vegetables, and more. Composting also reduces harmful methane emissions from landfills, and:
- Supports biodiverse and resilient soil organic matter (SOM) by diminishing plant diseases and pests
- Encourages topsoil preservation and continual growth of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, arthropods, and earthworms
- Improves the soil's fertility and abundance by creating rich nutrient-filled humus
- Decreases the use of chemical fertilizers in gardens and on lawns everywhere
- Lowers your carbon footprint every time you reduce, reuse, and recycle compostable containers
- Prevents run-off and soil erosion
Healthy soil is the basic foundation of healthy plants that support our food systems everywhere, which means that when you take care of the soil, you take care of yourself and your family. In addition, with improved soil health comes more significant water and nutrient retention, which increases global food security while decreasing ecosystem degradation.
What containers or products can be composted?
The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) is the only third-party verification group supported by ASTM International (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials). Compostable products certified by BPI meet ASTM industry standards for consumer or solid waste processing facilities. BPI-certified compostable products include:
PLA Cutlery, Cups, and Soup Containers. Made from plant-based "corn" plastics that are cold and heat tolerant. They can be composted at an industrial facility and returned to the earth but not at home.
Bagasse Clamshells, Serving Ware, Plates, Bowls, Molded Fiber Containers, PLA Lids, and Hinged Take-out Containers. Made from renewable, plant-based "sugarcane" materials that are grease-proof and freezer-safe. PLA lining is optional for leaky foods. They are compostable in industrial facilities only.
"Paper" Plates. Leftover fibers or byproducts of sugarcane production are called bagasse – a paper plate composite. They are fully compostable at home but require a balance of green and brown compostable materials to achieve the desired results.
"Biodegradable" Napkins. Chlorine-free and made from post-consumer recycled paper and straw paper, these brown napkins are compostable if used in food settings versus sopping up such things as paint spills.
“Paper” Straws. Made with sea turtles in mind, SWZLE’s eco-friendly straws won’t just keep our sea creatures safe from plastic nasal impalements. They’re also the responsible choice and best solution for restaurants that care about the environment.
Look for the BPI logo next time you purchase to-go containers and products for your business.
Where can to-go containers be composted?
Look for the locator map of industrial STA composting facilities in the United States on the US Composting Council website. These locations provide reports, facts, labels, and compost characteristics, providing current analysis information for those who require container composting services and, of course, those who buy compost.
Figure 2 Infographic Credit: Kids Do Gardening
With enough outdoor space available for use, make an open-air compost for free in your backyard. Effective composting uses a brown (carbon-rich) to green (nitrogen-rich) ratio of 3:1. That means for every three brown items such as to-go containers, twigs, leaves, and branches, you'll need one nitrogen item such as coffee grounds, eggshells, or grass clippings. Though a compost bin is not required, it will keep everything neat and in one place.
Avoid these items when composting:
- Charcoal ash
- Yard trimmings with pesticides
- Black walnut tree trimmings
- Fats, grease, lard, oils
- Meat, fish bones
- Pet waste
Or use indoor composting options (aerobic composting or vermicomposting) – just make sure you have adequate ventilation and space without leaving the compost exposed enough to attract flies. Of course, the same composting ratio applies indoors and outdoors, too.
What can I do to increase composting in my community?
Looking for ways you can help increase composting in your area? You can:
- Shop from retailers who use eco-friendly packaging and voice your vocal support.
- Encourage local eateries to kick plastic, Styrofoam, aluminum to-go containers, and switch to compostable, eco-friendly options.
- Bring your compostable to-go containers when you go out to eat.
- Start multiple neighborhood education and compost programs, including containers, drop-off dates, and defining an "end-user" for the materials, such as a school garden.
Unfortunately, many compostable to-go materials will end up in landfills. Still, lasting sustainable action is transformational over time, observing how people react, adapt, and make habitual changes towards the end goals.
References and recommended reading:
Ashrap, P., & Cathey, A. (2019). Trash to Treasure: The incredible benefits of composting: The pursuit: University of Michigan School of Public HEALTH: Environmental Health: Innovation: NUTRITION: POLLUTION. The Pursuit | University of Michigan School of Public Health | Environmental Health | Innovation | Nutrition | Pollution. https://sph.umich.edu/pursuit/2019posts/benefits-of-composting.html.
ASTM International - Standards worldwide. (2021). https://www.astm.org/.
Bailey, K. (2016). Compostable or NOT? How to tell if your product should be composted. Eco-cycle. https://ecocycle.org/recycle-compost-reuse/compost/compostable.
BioCycle. (2021). https://www.biocycle.net/.
Biodegradable products Institute - Certified Compostable. (n.d.). https://bpiworld.org/.
EPA. (n.d.). Composting at Home. EPA. https://www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home#benefits.
McNeill J. R. & Winiwarter V. Breaking the sod: humankind, history, and soil. Science. 304, 1627-1629 (2004).
Our Changing Climate. (2017). Why Soil Matters. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kZXulLobA8.
Pimentel, D., Harvey, C., Resosudarmo, P., Sinclair, K., Kurz, D., McNair, M., Crist, S., Shpritz, L., Fitton, L., Saffouri, R., & Blair, R. (1995). Environmental and economic costs of soil erosion and Conservation Benefits. Science, 267(5201), 1117–1123.
Toketemu. (2021). What's the Difference: Biodegradable and compostable. Nature's Path. https://www.naturespath.com/en-us/blog/whats-difference-biodegradable-compostable/.