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Confused About Compostable Products?

June 4, 2021

As more and more businesses look to eliminate, reduce or replace single-use plastic products, we´re seeing an increasing number of alternatives in the market, and whilst it’s great to have so much choice, it can also be extremely confusing. 

In our experience to date, the most common strategy to eliminate single-use plastic products in hospitality businesses has been to simply switch them to another single-use equivalent.  Sometimes this is switching plastic straws to paper straws, switching plastic combs and toothbrushes to bamboo or choosing a bio-based or compostable plastic that looks so similar to the traditional plastic product that it can be hard to tell them apart.  

What is the right thing to do?

To be honest, there isn’t really a right or wrong answer, so much depends on other external factors such as:

  • Availability and cost of alternatives
  • Waste separation, collection and management infrastructure in your municipality
  • Customer demographic
  • Brand standards and operating procedures
  • Local quality regulations
 
and so much more.  The most important factor in all of this is to be sure that you are making an informed decision so that you don’t solve one problem only to find you have created another.

Get clear on marketing terminology

A big part of the confusion is the use of terminology that describes how a product or packaging should be disposed of once it has been consumed or is no longer fit for use.   

For example, the term compostable is often used as a stand-alone disposal feature, but it’s not as simple as throwing something onto the compost heap to let nature do its work.

A report by Consumers International looks in detail at the challenges and opportunities caused by the lack of regulation around product and packaging labels, including those marketed as being compostable.  

To summarise it more simply, there are bascially two types of “compostable plastic” to choose from: 

Home or backyard compostable plastic is capable of breaking down at the soil temperature and conditions found in home / hotel compost piles. This may happen very quickly in warm climates but very slowly in cold climates. It also depends on humidity.  Products made from bagasse, paper, straw and PHA are usually suitable for home composting.

Industrially compostable plastic requires special conditions to biodegrade. These conditions (e.g. temperatures over 50°C) can ONLY be achieved in specific facilities, AND you would need to separate products on your business premises so that they can be collected in order to go into this special waste stream.  Products made from PLA, CPLA

How should this impact your buying decisions when it comes to compostable alternatives?

The last thing you want is to find that you have solved one problem (eliminating traditional single-use plastic) only to create another (a waste stream that cannot be properly separated and processed).  

Assuming that you have taken all reasonable steps to eliminate unnecessary purchases and switch to reusable alternatives where possible, these are our top tips to help you make the right decision when it comes to “compostable” alternatives:

1

Prioritize products that are certified as home compostable.  Any product that is certified home compostable will also be accepted at an industrial composting facility, whereas products certified as industrially compostable will not break down in a home compost environment (within the required timeframe).  

2

If you do not have an onsite composter, but food waste is collected specifically for composting, check with your waste management facility if home compostable products can be disposed of together with food waste.   Try to avoid putting home compostable products into food waste that will just go to landfill, once there they will either remain inert (so won’t break down at all and just take up landfill space) or if they do break down, compostable products will release methane in the process which is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2

3

There are extremely limited facilities to process industrially compostable products at a municipal level, if you wish to purchase such products we recommend working with a private contractor in order to ensure they are disposed of correctly after use. 

4

Where possible, avoid multi-layer products or multi-material products.  In most cases, things like juice cartons and take-away coffee cups lined with compostable plastic are unlikely to make it to a composting facility even if one exists.  This is usually because it is extremely difficult for today’s technology to separate the layers, or it is just not cost effective to do so.  

5

Think about who is using the product.  If the product or packaging is consumed on your premises then you can take responsibility for it, either disposing of it on your own compost heap or ensuring it is correctly separated and collected by a suitable waste management company.  

If your guest or customer is going to take a product away with them, you have no control over its final disposal.   In this situation it is advisable to take all possible steps to inform your guests and customers about responsible disposal. 

6

If you provide single-use products that will be consumed off site and they are likely to be contaminated with food (e.g. take-away items) bagasse is a good alternative to plastic clamshells and polystyrene, this is because bagasse breaks down in a matter of weeks in a compost heap. 

7

If you need to use single-use plates and bowls, look for options made from leaves, we have an excellent selection of leaf plates and bowls in the marketplace.  If you need to use single-use cups, look for those that have a water-based lining rather than plastic or bioplastic lining.

8

If it is not clear via a supplier’s website, ask them if their products and packaging meet recognised standards for home
or industrial composting, and make your decision
according to the disposal facilities that are available
to your business.  If you don’t understand their response, go back and ask again until you can be absolutely clear. 

At Greener Guests we ask all of our suppliers to be absolutely transparent about this.  You can find the information in the product specification tab under product and packaging disposal.

Standards for industrially compostable plastic in the EU and the USA are EN 13432, ASTM D6400 respectively. 

Standards for home composting are OK Compost, TUV Vincotte and AS5810.

There are a range of home compostable products available in our marketplace

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Jo Hendrickx
Jo Hendrickx
Jo is a sustainability professional living in Gran Canaria with over 20 years of experience in the global tourism industry. She has worked extensively with hotels and accommodation providers around the world since 2001 helping managers to navigate the health, safety, quality and sustainability expectations of tour operators. Increasingly concerned with the impacts of unnecessary plastics, Jo was motivated to create Travel Without Plastic to support those hotels that want to make a difference.
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