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The Catch with Compostables: Single-Use Can Never Be Sustainable

By Henry White, Think Zero Intern

Our country has an addiction to disposability. From water bottles to paper towels to clothing, we consume and we throw out. The average American generates 4.9 pounds of municipal solid waste per day. That adds up to about 292.4 million tons of waste in just one year. Compostable service ware — though it may seem promising — is not the solution. In fact, it is more of the same. Transitioning to these supposedly eco-friendly forms of packaging, food containers, utensils, and cups represents a half measure that ultimately obstructs real progress in curbing our waste production.

Having just finished my first year at Williams College, I have observed firsthand the ineffectiveness of a compostables program. In the school’s main dining hall, next to every reusable item there is a compostable alternative. Next to the plates, there are stacks of compostable clamshell containers with which students can grab their food to-go. Next to the metal utensils, there are little packets with a compostable fork, knife, spoon, and napkin. Next to the mugs and cups are compostable coffee cups and lids.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this picture. Students need to-go containers and as long as they are being composted, what’s the problem? There are a few. First of all, many of these items are not being composted at all. Maybe there aren’t enough signs and compost bins around campus. Maybe some students don’t care enough to dispose of the items properly. Either way, the result is huge piles of compostables overflowing trash cans around the school. This isn’t even the biggest issue. Most industrial composting facilities are not equipped to handle these types of containers, utensils, and cups. While food scraps take about 30-40 days to decompose in the composting process, compostables take between 60 to 180 days. They are on a completely different schedule. Williams does give their compost to a facility that can handle such items, but they have really tested the limits of the facility. One of my professors actually told our class that the school was warned to stop sending so many containers. Of course, nothing really changed, and I was left wondering if some percentage of our compost — the compost which actually made it into the proper bin — was simply being sent to a landfill.

This is a major problem because, in the anaerobic conditions of an airlocked landfill, the low-emission composting process cannot occur. Compostable containers and bioplastics break down and release methane — a greenhouse gas about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide — into the air. As a result of this misplaced compost, landfills are one of the largest contributors to man-made methane emissions.

Williams is certainly not alone in mishandling a compostables program. Companies like Sweetgreen boast that all their bowls and utensils are completely biodegradable and yet reports suggest that very little of their waste is actually being diverted from landfills. The reasons remain the same: the sheer quantity of waste produced — especially the compostables with a longer decomposition time — is more than municipal composting can handle.

I was listening to a podcast on compostables and the speaker — Kate Flynn from Sun & Swell Foods — argues that, even though compostables are far from perfect, we should aim for progress over perfection. This is a huge improvement on single-use plastics and once we have improved our infrastructure and composting facilities, these new forms of service ware and packaging will pay off big time. To a certain degree, Kate is right. However, those changes are far off and compostables are causing quite a bit of harm to our atmosphere today. Furthermore, companies are using the shift to these “eco” products to get good publicity without making any genuine effort. It’s just greenwashing. The real changes are harder. At Williams, for instance, dining staff shortages since the start of COVID have made it more difficult to establish a reusable container program. Washing requires labor that isn’t available at the moment, and taking out a bin filled with single-use compostables is much easier. The first step to any sort of change, however, is understanding that compostables are not the answer. Ultimately, nothing that is single-use can really be sustainable.

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