Pourquoi compostable? Why compostable?

There is general scientific consensus now that the Earth’s ecosystems are in a state of crisis, and word is getting around. Because of the growing awareness of climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction, more people are ready - consumers and businesses alike - to make an effort to help fix what is broken. 

But with all the confusion out there regarding recycling and composting, it’s hard to make sense of what packaging we should be using, when, and why. So what is better? Reusable? Recyclable? Compostable? The answer is: They’re all good, depending on the situation. 

When possible, using reusable dishes, containers and packaging can be a great option - as long as you have space to store them and use efficient methods to clean them. When the situation calls for a disposable option - as it so often does in a fast-paced world - the choice we have is: 1. Use compostable packaging, or 2. Use recyclable packaging. 

For the moment let’s look at some answers to the question ‘Why Compostable?’ by asking ‘When Compostable?’ - that is to say : In what situations should we use compostable products like dishes, containers, and packaging? 

A great way to start answering this question is to look at the most recently-released details for the 2021 Canadian plastics ban.

What Single-Use Plastic Products will be Banned in Canada in 2021?

1. Straws
2. Cutlery
3. Checkout bags
4. Stir sticks
5. Food packaging made from plastics that are difficult or expensive to recycle.
Cafe Viridi emballages compostables

Why are these Single-Use Products Being Banned?

The items on the 2021 ban list all share one major characteristic: While they are all made of materials that may technically be recyclable, it is much more expensive to recycle them than it is to make new products from source ingredients. This point is driven home by the last item mentioned on the list, which is in fact a category meant to catch all packaging that is ‘difficult or expensive to recycle’, along with the other items named on the list. 

These items are hard to sort, and have generally been in contact with food or beverages, which leaves behind food residue that the recycling process cannot effectively deal with. Because of this, only 9% of all plastic waste is recycled in Canada, as reported by the Ministry of the Environment in early 2021.

Over our many years providing collection service through Compost Montreal, we’ve been able to observe and research this issue from very close up. The challenge of maximizing the amount of organic waste we are able to capture - with the least amount of contamination - is how we got involved with compostable products in the first place. 

Compostable dishes and packaging help solve the issue of food residue contaminating the recycling process, because compostable plates, cups, straws, containers, cutlery, and other packaging can go straight into the same collection bin as food waste in order to be composted. Because of this, studies have shown that the use of compostable food packaging greatly increases the rate of organics capture in municipal compost programs. 


Why does this matter?

All of that food residue left behind on dishes and packaging adds up to a lot of organic matter. If it ends up in landfill, it creates methane, a greenhouse gas with a potential global warming impact of 30 to 70 times that of co2. 

Composting - done properly - reduces the production of methane to negligible levels while turning the organic material into compost, which is hugely important for maintaining agricultural soil.

So what are the main reasons to use compostable products for packaging food? 

1. When dishes, containers, and packaging come in contact with food, they become difficult and expensive to recycle;

2. The vast majority of recyclable materials that have food residue on them go to landfill, where the decomposing food generates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas;

3. Compostable dishes and packaging can go directly into an organics collection bin for composting with any amount of food still on them;

4. Composting prevents the production of methane gas and also produces compost, which is necessary for maintaining the health and productivity of agricultural soils;

5. Using compostable products for food service packaging reduces environmental impact when compared to recyclable products.

What other situations make it difficult and expensive to recycle packaging? 

Another major way that recycling becomes difficult and expensive is when multiple materials are combined into the same product. There is no good way, for example, for a recycling facility to separate the watertight plastic coating inside a coffee cup from the paper shell of the cup, which makes it difficult to recycle.

There is likewise no good way to separate the plastic layer from the foil layer of many types of ‘stand-up pouch’ that we see so often these days as packaging for coffee and nuts, among many other products.

When products like this are put in the recycling bin they cause another big problem: The more of this type of non-recyclable product that arrives at the recycling facility, the harder it is to sort the products that may actually be recyclable. This kind of contamination often leads to whole batches of packaging being turned around and sent to landfill. 

So because of this, we know that most multi-layered packaging is difficult and expensive to recycle. In a situation like this it is better to use items like compostable coffee cups and compostable stand-up pouches.  

Soft Plastic

Another really big offender these days is the soft plastic mailer bags that are used to ship items to customers from online stores. Generally, once they are shipped, they will have been combined with multiple materials: There is the plastic mailer bag itself; the adhesive used to seal it; a shipping label; a plastic label sleeve; and often a certain amount of packing tape.  

Even if all of these materials are separated from the package by the customer who receives it, only the paper shipping label has a shot at all of being recycled. All the other materials used in this package are difficult and expensive to recycle and will generally find their way into a landfill or an ocean.

Compostable mailer bags, on the other hand, can go straight into municipal collection bins for composting, and the ones we sell can now even be composted at home! If combined with regular printer paper and compostable packing tape, there’s no need to even separate the materials, as the whole thing can go into the compost as one compostable package!

Compostable shopping bags and bin liners offer the same answer for soft plastic bag versions that are themselves difficult and expensive to recycle. 

Sacs d’envoi postal compostables 

When should we use compostable dishes and packaging?

That seems like probably enough about this for right now. Just to recap, we’ve gone through some of the most common situations in which we should be using compostable items, and why.

Here is a list that is easy to remember:

1. For serving and packaging food;

2. For products that require stand-up pouches;

3. For mailer bags used to ship products to customers;

4. For packaging that combines different materials like packing tape;

5. To replace all the hard-to-recycle items that are on the 2021 Canadian ban list 

We hope this helps clear things up a bit, and we invite you to get in touch with us if you have any other questions! In the meantime, stay tuned for more answers to the question ‘Why Compostable?’, as well as an exploration of the terms ‘Biodegradable’ and ‘Compostable’ and what each one actually means!