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  • Writer's pictureBeth Szurpicki

Mess Part 3: Are compostable and biodegradable products the answer?

Part 1: How did we get into this mess?

Part 2: "All this new plastic was creating too much trash, and people didn’t like it.”

Today, we’re being led towards another false solution which is muddying the waters, and making us think we can continue with single-use: 'compostable’ and 'biodegradable' packaging.

"Most of us have longheld beliefs that composting is good. But unlike food and yard waste that adds nutrients to compost, compostable packaging adds no nutrients to compost. It actually contaminates it, and creates a lower value and less profitable product. Many composters [including Toronto's green bin program] won't accept food packaging at all."

- How reuse policies can transform the throw-away economy Upstream

Why compostable and biodegradable single-use products are not the solution we need:

  • They're still single-use: each item requires energy and resources to make and transport, as well as dispose of. We often focus on the "downstream" impact, like where our waste goes when we're done with it. But just as important is what it takes to get it to us in the first place, and the strain this has on our environment and climate.

  • Many are coated with toxic additives like PFAs, a manmade chemical that doesn't go away (which then contaminates the compost and environment, and are linked with adverse health effects like infertility and some cancers). These products are not regulated, so even if an item has plastics or other contaminants in it, the manufacturer can slap the word "biodegradable" or "compostable" on it.

  • These items are not accepted in Toronto's green bin, so when they're inevitably put there, they are pulled out and sent to landfill. Further, the majority are not compostable in home/yard compost bins (or in the environment), but instead require specific environments in a facility to degrade (again, which Toronto doesn't have).

These items are a problem. And just like recycling, they are a distraction from what we really need to do: reuse.

Let's be honest: I sometimes wish biodegradable and compostable products were the answer. I think it'd be easier for people to switch to these products because they require less effort, less change in habits. The risk here though is that we switch to these single-use items, and keep on consuming and throwing away without thinking about the impact, and continuing the never-ending drain on our planet's resources. The simple truth is this way we live can't go on forever, and we all (speaking collectively here to the corporations too, not just us individuals) need to make an effort.

Luckily for us in Toronto, we have some great reuse initiatives and zero-waste stores, like: Unboxed Market, Bare Market, Saponetti, Suppli, Muuse, and Crisper Kits - I don't know what I'd do without these businesses. Check out true zero waste stores and reuse and return systems for a solid list at (under 'resources'). Please consider supporting these businesses so reuse can grow!

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