Eco friendly catering & packaging supplies, Eco-lifestyle products & Natural Home-wares

How compostable is compostable catering ware?

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This is a question I hear a lot at Going Green Solutions, in my role of handling business customer enquiries and orders for wholesale amounts of our biodegradable catering ware range. We've written about this in earlier blogs but it's a topic we never tire of.

First, what does degradable mean?

To start at the start, pretty much everything is DEGRADABLE. All this means is that it will fall apart into smaller pieces of the same thing, and sometimes change chemical composition (eg. rusting). That of course does not mean that everything the is labelled 'degradable' is therefore good for the environment!!

A giant tree lying on its side might take 2-300 years to degrade - in this case, BIO-degrade (degrade through the action of bio-organisms). That is great for the environment as it provides habitat, food for organisms and can help stop erosion.

A small island of floating plastic refuse in the middle of ocean will also degrade eventually - PHOTO-degrade and OXO-degrade (degrade through the action of the sun and the air).

'Degradable' is often used as a label for Green Washing, most commonly in reference to plastic bags. To make a plastic bag degradable, a chemical is added to the bags so they can break up into smaller pieces over time. However, what do you have then? Smaller pieces of floating plastic that are easier for wildlife to swallow. Toxic indeed.

What does compostable mean then?

The easy explanation to the above question is that for something to be considered compostable, it must first be BIO-degradable (able to be eaten by bio-organisms), and there a time frame involved. Most commercial open composting takes 6-8 weeks, is running at about 60 degrees Celsius and has to be able to break down 100% of it's contents into dirt through a combination of water, heat, movement and micro organisms.

Compostable catering ware

I am often asked where and how people can dispose of our compostable catering ware when it has been used. "Surely, into the compost?" you say!

This unfortunately only works in limited capacity at present. Whilst all our compostable catering ware items ARE certified compostable, the certification is for compostability in a commercial composting facility. The reason is that a commercial facility can guarantee a certain level of heat, movement and moisture that guarantees composting within a certain time frame.

Many of our compostable catering ware items are quite easily composted at home - any of our fibre or palm leaf plates, bowls, cups, and lunchboxes are similar in nature to paper fibre and can therefore be composted or worm-farmed as you would similar objects of paper.

The issue begins with PLA items. PLA is a plant based plastic, and is used to make cutlery, clear cups and clear deli containers. It requires a certain level of heat to start the composting process and in most home composts, this level of heat is not achieved.

There are a small amount of commercial composters who are happy to take on PLA to be composted, if they can be assured of a low level of contamination of plastic into the compost (which ruins their end product of course). This means that some of our larger clients are able to make contracts with them to compost their catering ware products along with their food waste. This is the absolutely ideal situation, and in a perfect world, this option would be available to all. We believe it will be at some point.

What do we do in the meantime?

So this leads us to the obvious - where does it get put then? At present land fill is the only option, which no-one would ever call a perfect option. You may be wondering why anyone would make this choice to purchase PLA catering ware then. There are several reasons. Plant based plastics are made from renewable materials instead of oil. They do not leach BPA or other chemicals into the ground and ground water when they degrade. And, they will certainly break down a lot quicker than Polystyrene, and when they do, the end result will be what they were made from - plant matter.

Tell us some more good news!

To finish we do have a great example of a wonderful closed circle composting system that is already in place at our shop in Hurstbridge and at other places around Melbourne.

We stock the Eennee brand of 100% compostable disposable nappies. Our local customers purchase compostable cornstarch bags to put the used nappies into. When the bags are full they pay a small fee to put them into a wheely bin at the side of our shop. When the bin is full we call for collection. The pile of compostable nappies, made from plant based products, filled with baby poo and wee, is then taken to a commercial composting facility in Melbourne, where it is turned into rich healthy dirt! This is a great example of a closed loop no waste system!

Cheers, Sean Flynn

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