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Since I started my new role as Clean Water Action's ReThink Disposable Coordinator, I’ve been talking with many business owners and people in the community about the very exciting topic of waste, in particular, single-use disposables like plastic straws, cutlery and bags and foam take out containers. I’m happy to find shared values when it comes to wanting to prevent trash from entering our waterways and filling up our ocean.

It’s inspiring to see individuals make changes in their daily lives and businesses start to implement waste-conscious practices. I’m also hearing frustration from business owners who want to prevent waste, but run into certain expectations and standards that keep them on the single-use disposable train with no way of knowing how to get off.

One choice that I see businesses owners make to try to balance their concern for the environment and the demand for single-use disposables is using some form of "eco-friendly” single-use disposable. When I see a business using these kinds of products, I take it as a good sign. This means they are concerned about plastic pollution and are making an effort to do better, but unfortunately these products are not as good for the environment as they seem and often end up costing businesses a lot of money.

They can be two to four times as expensive as regular products. Ultimately, the best solution for the planet and for your wallet is to change the practice of using something once and throwing it out. This means switching to reusable products and preventing waste to begin with, rather than spending money, energy, and resources on planning the long afterlife of a product that is destined for the trash from the moment it is made.

It's easy to fall into thinking that eco-packaging is a good temporary fix to meet the demand for single-use products as consumers slowly change their mindset and behaviors. I have heard people say, “Hey, if it has to be thrown out, at least it will break down and won’t be as toxic." The truth is, labels marking products as compostable, biodegradable, or plant-based are misleading. As a consumer reading a label, it can be difficult to figure out what terms like bioplastic, degradable, biodegradable, and compostable actually mean. The use of these terms on product labels is regulated differently by different states so it can be very confusing. 

Plant-based plastics or Bioplastics

There are many different types of plastics that are made from plants. While this means that no fossil fuels are used in their material, the process of making these plastics is still energy and resource intensive. These plastics may still contain toxic chemical additives and large areas of land must be converted from agricultural purposes to grow plants used primarily to make plastic. In many cases, the end product is similar to any other plastic and will last just as long in the environment. Some bioplastics are not easily recyclable. Contaminated recycling material, recyclable materials mixed with those that are not, is a problem that makes recycling efforts more difficult, more expensive, and less effective.

Degradable, Biodegradable, and Compostable

Something labeled as degradable means it will break down into smaller pieces. Many smaller pieces of plastic are not any less harmful to the environment than a single large piece. Even microplastics, pieces less than five millimeters long, pollute waterways and are harmful to wildlife. Products labeled as biodegradable are made of materials that allow them to degrade more quickly than other plastics. Different biodegradable products degrade at different rates under different conditions.

The label, however, does not distinguish between different timelines of degradation or set any standard conditions for disposal of biodegradable products, so it is not very useful. In addition, these products are usually made of materials similar to regular plastics and therefore can leave behind toxic chemicals after breaking down.

According to the American Society for Testing and Materials, in order for a product to be labeled as compostable, it must be “capable of undergoing biological decomposition in a compost site as part of an available program, such that the plastic is not visually distinguishable and breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, at a rate consistent with known compostable materials (e.g. cellulose) and leaves no toxic residue.” 

This means that compostable products really need to go to an industrial composting facility and will not decompose in a backyard compost or in a landfill. Many people do not have easy access to industrial composting so most of these compostable products end up in landfills. As a form of recycling, composting also faces the same challenges as other kinds of recycling; compost can become contaminated if non-compostable materials or toxic residues accidentally enter the facility and managing compostable waste still uses energy, resources, and money.

Prevent Waste Before It Starts

None of these labels are really as good as they sound. It's important for consumers and business owners to know the difference between these terms and the cost and impact of eco-packaging - that way we can all make the best choices for the environment (and our wallets). While these products are a sign of concern for the environment, they are not a solution to any of the problems caused by waste. Recycling and solid waste management programs consistently report that waste prevention is the best option for the environment and the most cost-effective option.

Next time you come across a product labeled with some kind of eco-packaging, think about a way you can use a reusable item instead, and talk to your favorite businesses that use this kind of packaging about your shared concerns about the environment and ways they can do even better. Better yet, encourage them to join our ReThink Disposable program, a free program which works to minimize single use disposable packaging in food service, helps small businesss save thousands of dollars per year, and prevents waste and ocean litter pollution.

ReThink Disposable is funded by a grant through the Northeast Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC), partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Trash Free Waters initiatives, and the Environmental Endowment of New Jersey.