For compostable cups, plates, silverware and to-go containers to biodegrade in a way that reduces greenhouse gases, they must be disposed of in commercial composting facilities — a backyard pile won’t do the job. When those products get dumped in landfills, they release methane gas, which has greater heat-trapping ability than carbon dioxide gas.
“There’s sort of this misperception that when you put organic materials in the landfill … that they will break down as they would in a compost bin or as they would in nature,” says Marti Matsch, communications director for Eco-Cycle. “That’s actually not true.”
Landfills are dry, oxygen-poor environments, better designed to mummify their contents than allow them to decay. According to the Environment and Plastics Industry Council, a Canadian plastics industry association, more than two-thirds of the garbage in a landfill is biodegradable, but once there, it becomes frighteningly well preserved. The cores of 10-year-old carrots are still orange. Twenty-year-old steak bones still have meat clinging to them. Newspapers discarded 40 years before are still legible.
Modern landfills are designed to function that way because biodegradation can create unstable sub-soil conditions, contaminate groundwater and emit methane gas, according to the Biodegradable Products Institute.
“Methane is a greenhouse gas that, in the short term, is actually 72 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide,” Matsch says.
Landfills produce so much methane that the Environmental Protection Agency runs a program to help recover that gas from landfills for use as a fuel source. The Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site and the North Denver Regional Landfill were both tapped for electricity as part of this program.
“Composting is critical in the fight against climate change. It’s not just about having too much stuff in a landfill,” Matsch says. “The real issue with this material is that it does produce a greenhouse gas.”
When a business buys food products meant to biodegrade in the hands of consumers, but those cups, plates, and silverware get thrown away with the rest of the trash, she says, that turns the good of buying a compostable product into the bad of greenhouse gases.
“If you don’t have compost service, but you are providing these compostable materials, do really let the customer know those are intended to be composted at home, in their curbside compost containers,” Matsch advises.
There’s no alternative for composting those products because only commercial facilities reach the temperatures necessary to biodegrade the products.
“In a perfect world, every compostable product would end up in a commercial compost facility and break down to dirt,” says Mary Hubbard, customer care manager at the Boulder-based Eco-Products, which makes compostable and recyclable products from materials including corn, sugar cane and bamboo. “In a perfect world, everyone would have a curbside compost pickup […] but we’re not in that world.”
In commercial composting facilities, a corn cup can break down to dirt in 90 days and a sugar cane plate in 40 days.
“If it ends up in a traditional landfill, what happens and how long it takes for that product to break down completely is a whole other story,” she says.
“You need heat, moisture, and microbes to break down compostable products, which typically you wouldn’t find in a landfill.”
“Our paper products, should they go into a landfill and unfortunately some of them do, they will make methane. That’s just what happens to paper in a landfill,” says Claudia Capitini, sustainability maven for Eco-Products.
Eco-Products relies on the messaging in their catalogs and on their website to inform their purchasers, most of whom are food service providers, about the proper disposal of their products.
“I think that we are stating a really clear message on our website, that for the composting standard to be met it needs to be a commercial composting facility,” Hubbard says. “I speak to countless, countless restaurant owners, and the people we speak to are really well-versed in compostable products.”
Captini also emphasizes the importance of education and communication.
Their business, she says, is selling the products and providing the information and services to help their purchasers make the best use of them.
“To get a cup into the compost, you’ve got to connect a lot of links in the chain, and not all of the [connections] in those links can really happen at all times,” she says. “We’re doing our best to change that, but really it’s a matter of a system that needs a lot of work.”