How Green Is Compostable Packaging?

By Jon Fisher, The Nature Conservancy

I was recently asked a question about “compostable” food packaging being used by some grocers like Trader Joe’s and how “green” they are. As a scientist who strives to be as green as possible, this is the kind of question that keeps me up at night! So I thought it would be fun to research.

The short, scientific answer is that skipping packaging entirely is best if possible, but otherwise for most consumers the compostable containers are probably slightly better than traditional plastics (with several caveats, explained below).

It probably comes as no surprise that itís better to buy produce that comes unpackaged ó e.g., buy your grains or beans in bulk rather than in small bags. This practice is especially true if you skip putting the produce in a plastic bag or reuse the bags or Tupperware you use to bring them home (I give plastic bags a quick rinse and hang them to dry in the kitchen).

Do your onions or lemons (or any produce with skin that keeps it fresh) really need their own bag, or can they just go in the shopping cart and then in your tote bag before being unpacked at home?

But sometimes produce doesnít come in bulk (e.g. berries), and some stores package produce that doesnít need it. So if no packaging isnít an option, the question remains as to whether or not “compostable” containers are better than traditional plastic. There are several factors to consider.

First, there are two basic kinds of compostable containers:

  1. The ones that look like natural plant fiber, such as the packages Whole Foods uses for their salad bar. These are often made from bamboo, grass, sugar cane or other similar materials. They are tree-free, typically break down in a home composter within a month or two (my vermicomposter takes about a month) and are always a great option.
  2. The ones that look like plastic are usually corn-based polylactic acid (PLA), can’t be recycled and can only be composted in a special commercial facility.

The traditional plastic containers at the grocery store are typically #1 plastic (PET). So those are sometimes, but not always, recyclable.

Itís a plus if the container didn’t require petroleum to manufacture, since that helps wean us off of oil (although there is some concern that increasing global demand for corn for PLA and ethanol is driving higher food costs). Both kinds of compostable containers also typically require less energy to produce (e.g. PLA requires about†25-51 percent less energy than conventional plastics).

What are the disposal options for each of these packages? See the chart on the next page for a quick synopsis.

Compostable Recyclable Time in Landfill
Fiber Yes Sometimes, see Note 3 Slow to degrade
PLA Sometimes, see Note 1 No Very slow to degrade
Plastic No Sometimes, see Note 2 Very slow to degrade

There are some new methods being studied to sort out PLA using near-infrared light or black light, so that you could just recycle these compostable containers with your other plastics, and leave it to the facility to figure out how to properly dispose of it.

But for now, follow these rules:

  1. Bring your own reusable bags or containers to the store when they do offer unpackaged produce or other items so you don’t need to use new bags
  2. Please consider asking companies like Trader Joe’s to eliminate packaging for some of their produce that doesnít need it, and failing that, to accept back their compostable containers for proper disposal.
  3. Look for a convenient place near you to take compostable containers (try health food stores or findacomposter.com)
  4. If you don’t compost at home yet, give it a try! It works great for fiber containers.
  5. If you can’t find a place to compost PLA, but can recycle the kinds of containers you get at the store, consider buying (and recycling) plastic containers instead.

Note 1: Not compostable at home, but ask at your local health food store if they accept drop-offs to ship to an industrial composting facility. You can also try findacomposter.com.

Note 2: Many recycling facilities have restrictions on recycling #1 or #2 plastics. They often don’t take “clamshell” containers (even if they say they take #1/#2), and only accept narrow neck bottles. Call your facility to check.

Note 3: Most communities donít recycle fiber with food contamination, but if your fiber container is clean (e.g. you only used it for product without dressing) you can recycle it as cardboard. If you can recycle pizza boxes in your area, you should be able to recycle the fiber containers no matter what.

Jon Fisher is a data management specialist for The Nature Conservancy, the world’s leading conservation organization. He has studied forestry, environmental biology, stream ecology, environmental engineering and how technology and spatial analysis can improve wildlife management at airports. He also loves to cook delicious vegan food. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Image: Salad bar by edkohler/Flickr

49 comments

Srinivasan K.
Srinivasan K11 months ago

Thanks for the Information,

http://ecofoodpack.sg

Jon Fisher
Jon Fisher4 years ago

Out of curiosity, I ran my own test to see how well compostable plastic breaks down in the home environment. The answer (as expected): not well. I took pictures before (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jaundicedferret/7993679229/in/photostream) and after 4.5 months (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jaundicedferret/7993687516/in/photostream) and you can see that it didn't really break down at all (except for the paper backing).

Harsha Vardhana R
Harsha Vardhana5 years ago

Thanks for the spread of awareness

Jon Fisher
Jon Fisher5 years ago

Thanks to Shannon B for pointing out that the fiber compostable containers are indeed sometimes recyclable. I have obtained certification from "Be Green Packaging" who makes the fiber containers that their product is potentially recyclable (as cardboard).
1. If you have a clean / empty fiber container it should almost certainly be able to be recycled (e.g. it hasn't been used, or was just used for something that doesn't leave traces of food on it).
2. If you have a used container that held something with oil in it (salad dressing, most cooked food) it MAY still be recyclable, but in most communities it cannot be (if you can't recycle pizza boxes, you probably can't recycle your oily used fiber containers either).

I only use the fiber containers for food that leaves a residue, and I live in a community where fiber (like paper or cardboard) that has been contaminated with food cannot be recycled, so I sometimes forget that others may be able to recycle them. I'll correct the article shortly but wanted to post it here as well. Thanks again for the comments!

Shane C.
Shane C5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Holly Lawrence
Holly Lawrence5 years ago

Great info and ideas - Thank YOU!

Sue W.
Past Member 5 years ago

Very interesting thank you

Chris R.
Chris R5 years ago

Thanks TNC!~

Mandi A.
Ama A5 years ago

Thank you for the article

Kirsten Parker
Kirsten P5 years ago

really good information. I try to stay away from buying products that are over packaged, but always recycle whatever I end up with. Interesting to note the limitations of some recycle centres