Compostable Packaging...a Bust? Ethical Consumption Investigates

sunchipsCompostables have boomed over the last five years, but are they really sustainable? Ethical Consumption continues its look into businesses that are walking the talk in the packaging arena. The compostable market including bags, event goodies, and packaging has been hailed as a solution to the developed world's growing waste piles.

But has the research, infrastructure, and consumer mentalities really "gotten there" to make composting a viable and sustainable option?

According to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition's report and other studies done, the answer is:
Not Exactly.

What does 'compostable' mean after all? The term "compostable" is unregulated in most places across the world. It is supposed to indicate that an item will break down into components naturally found in the earth over a reasonable period of time. For instance, unbleached paper packaging with natural adhesives can be ripped up, thrown in a home composter or a city compost bin, and then be turned into valuable compost for crops and gardens.

Why hasn't it caught on? First, modifying packaging and other goods takes capital, and although the natural cycles of the earth are not concerned about our financial cycles, the companies that produce and invest in these goods are. The current economic climate isn't ideal for new investments that do not provide a certain and quick payback period for companies.

Which leads to the next two barriers: Compostables' ambiguity and Consumer choices. As mentioned above, the term 'compostable' is subject to interpretation when it comes to labeling and this is providing a lot of confusion for companies and consumers. It has also opened the door for a great deal of greenwashing. Suddenly 'everything' is compostable because it has a single component of a plant. So the market for the consumer and the regulation to keep claims honest hasn't 'gotten' there yet in North America, Europe is slightly ahead.

But the biggest barrier is one we don't see at all. Infrastructure. My Grandmother can recall compost bins in kitchens and larger areas in the backyard in the middle of the city while raising her children. In this closed system, farmers would drive into the city and pick up the compost as slop for their pigs and to turn it into 'black gold' for their land. These days, most citiess are not equipped to take composting with no vehicles, facilities, and a loss of cultural knowledge and consumer awareness, composting has taken a backseat to Recycling.

Where is it going? Somewhere good. With some leading cities across the nation reinstating city-wide composting, and some like San Francisco, even instituting fines for not composting, we are regaining our composting heritage. In terms of packaging, it is still like the Wild West. Companies are hesitant to jump right in without a certain interest from consumers since they are typically not responsible for their packaging waste. Sun Chips on the other hand have used this time of increased environmental awareness to their best advantage. Their chip bags, made from compostable materials, are hitting it big with the slogan "from the sun", indicating even their facilities are run on power from the sun. Quite a transformation back to nature. As for other companies, composting will take a lot of cross-collaboration, but as Sun Chips are showing, it could really be worth the effort.

For more information about compostable and biodegradable products, check out Ethical Consumption's look at the eco-labels available and which one is the true certifying body.

Photo Credit: GizMag