Trash Talk

January 26, 2016 SustainabilityBy Kelly Egolf
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This morning, I grabbed a coffee from a great local shop. After finishing the last drop, I went to dispose of the cup. Just before tossing it, I noticed the label on the clear plastic read compostable and I thought, maybe the best place to dispose of this is not the recycling bin?

The impact our trash has on the environment is all about where it ends up.  If a recyclable item ends up in the landfill instead of at a recycling center, it’s bad for the environment (maybe).  The same rules apply to compostable waste.  If it’s not properly disposed of, it’s a serious environmental problem, no matter what it is made of.

As food waste in a landfill degrades, it creates methane gas (a major contributor to global warming.)  Composting, the biological process that turns organic waste into a natural soil fertilizer, drastically reduces methane-gas-pollution. Compostable plastics are capable of reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and greatly reducing the volume of municipal waste.

Compostable plastics can be either petroleum based or made from renewable plant sources. The term compostable refers to the potential within a product to break down, not what it’s actually made out of.

Not all compostable plastics are inherently beneficial to the environment. A compostable product becomes beneficial only when disposed of at a commercial composting center, otherwise it’s just trash like any other trash.  And like most topics we write about, it’s a complicated one.  Is making plastics from plants any better than fossil fuels?

Since I don’t see any compost bins around, the question remains: should I throw this compostable cup into the recycling bin or into a regular trashcan headed to the landfill?

Compostable waste actually gums up the recycling center. In fact, just one compostable plastic cup can contaminate an entire batch of recycling. So, the recycling bin is the worst place for my compostable plastic cup.

If ends up in the landfill, it simply occupies space and produces methane gas.  Not to mention the fossil fuels used to transport it there, and the energy used by the landfill machinery.   But if it ended up ruining an entire batch of recycling, it would force even more trash into the landfill.

The ideal place for my coffee cup to end up is at a commercial composting facility.  Home-based composting is a great way to deal with food scraps, but our small compost piles do not create the conditions necessary to degrade compostable plastic. You can find a list of commercial composting facilities and those nearest to you at  (By the way, check out the curbside composting offered to residents in San Francisco.)  Here at Verde, we use local composting company Reunity Resources.  We currently divert over 1 ton of waste each week.

It is incredibly important to think about where every disposable product will end up, whichever bin you throw it into. We are paying more attention to where our food products come from, it’s now time to think about where they end up.


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