The world of waste prevention and recycling is very complicated. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know — and what I do know changes from place to place and sometimes one day to the next. Obviously, this is not an ideal environment for those of us who want to make lifestyle choices that create a lighter footprint on our surroundings. It shouldn’t take this much effort but right now it does. Today’s article focuses on clarifying the difference between a potentially recyclable item and one that is “compostable.”
Plastics often are stamped with a chasing arrow symbol. This symbol communicates two things: The number inside the arrow denotes the type of plastic. This information informs the plastics recycler downstream what the content is. This determines what happens next to this product. The second bit of info relayed to the consumer is that somewhere in the world this item may be recycled. It does NOT mean it can be recycled. That said, the items that can be recycled locally are communicated as such by the waste hauler. Ideally only the “approved” material is collected and taken to a facility that separates out the different categories and landfills the contaminants and then sends them to markets to recycle into new products.
A so-called “compostable” product confusingly may also have a chasing arrow No. 7 stamped on it, particularly if it presents in clear plastic and it’s purported as “plant-based” (not to be confused with “petroleum-based” plastic). There are commercial facilities that may take No. 7 along with organic material. I have seen with my own eyes how the “compostable” utensils and clear plastics do NOT break down. They are screened out and landfilled at the end of the composting process.
Composting organics is similar to recycling. It is similar in that there is a process involved to create a new product from an old one. It is re-using materials in a way to produce a new product to enrich the soil. Composting involves the breaking down of biodegradable materials from various micro-organisms. It is limited to organic matter found in woody materials, food scraps, leaves, grass, plants, newspaper and cardboard. These items will all break down and become soil if processed correctly.
In their confusion, some people mistakenly mix organics with mixed recycling. Sometimes glass jars, paper and plastics have residue remaining when placed in mixed (commingled) recycling, or they dump actual organic material in commingle. Every situation when organics are mixed with other recyclables is dirtying the recycle stream. The “organics” (except for unsoiled newspaper and cardboard) are always unwelcome and need to stay separate to ensure recyclability.
To further complicate our understanding of properly composting and recycling, enter the explosion of products professing varying shades of "green-ness" and goodness.
A California company that has been at the forefront of the single-use compostable products is World Centric. Education is a large part of their mission and somewhat ironically they sell these products. They are much more conscientious than most other business that sell this stuff. Their website included these words that speak a spooky truth in light of the type of products they sell:
“Think hard before buying any single-use disposable product, even compostable ones. When choosing any product, first consider how to reduce the amount you buy and then consider whether the product is something you can reuse again and again. Finally, consider whether the product is something you can recycle when you are done with it. If after all those considerations, you still decide to purchase a single-use disposable product we encourage you to choose a single-use disposable product that is also compostable.”
The caveat I would add is that when considering using disposables and then realizing they will end up in the landfill (because that’s the only option in Southern Oregon), then be crystal clear that you are paying extra for this “pho-feel good” that benefits the business you bought it from and the manufacturer who built it in hopes that you would buy it. And indeed we have. I appreciate World Centric’s transparency. It is rare in the business world we currently inhabit.
With this additional information, I hope you may be better informed when being served up claims about the single-use disposable item you may choose to consume.
—Risa Buck has served on the Ashland Conservation Commission and in waste prevention education for more than a decade. You may reach her through firstname.lastname@example.org. Find past WasteNot columns online at bit.ly/rbwastenot.