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How Green Is Compostable Packaging?

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

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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