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How Green Is Compostable Packaging?

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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.

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Read more: Food, Green, Reduce, Recycle & Reuse, Smart Shopping, , , , , , , ,

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48 comments

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3:22PM PDT on Sep 16, 2012

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).

11:04PM PST on Nov 24, 2011

Thanks for the spread of awareness

1:56PM PST on Nov 14, 2011

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!

5:37PM PST on Nov 13, 2011

Thanks for the article.

4:57PM PST on Nov 12, 2011

Great info and ideas - Thank YOU!

1:29AM PST on Nov 12, 2011

Very interesting thank you

6:39PM PST on Nov 11, 2011

Thanks TNC!~

10:49AM PST on Nov 11, 2011

Thank you for the article

12:05PM PST on Nov 10, 2011

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

11:30AM PST on Nov 10, 2011

Thanks for the information. I always thought the fiber packaging would compost faster. Live and learn. I try to buy at bulk stores, as much as possible, and I do the same as you; rinse out the plastic bags and reuse them. Thanks.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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