The Dirt on Compostable Packaging with Jamie

The Dirt on Compostable Packaging with Jamie

Meet Jamie:

"Here’s where I pretend to be sitting across from a serious interviewer, taking notes about the epic tale of my life leading up to this exact moment in time. I’ll spare you the formative years of skinned knees and belly flops off of the diving board at the pool. I will say, however, that I’ve always been fascinated by how the natural world functions around me, steering my interest from forest ranger to veterinarian to psychologist (all as viable potential “what I want to be when I grow up” fodder). So, it only makes sense that I find myself in retail today, right? Actually, it may not be as much of a departure as you might think. 

My professional background has been focused on impact from the very beginning, working on building local programs with non-profits to large global government initiatives with USAID, and most recently working at the Walmart Foundation steering the environmental grant portfolio before coming to Hive. I see a lot of potential in the private sector, particularly retail, as a way to harness everyday “business as usual” to start raising the standard of expectations. Which is all the more important when you start factoring in international supply chains. I believe that companies and consumers have great power when they both come together to, you I came to Hive because I believe in the mission of getting to better, and I jumped at the opportunity to help people sort through all the greenwash-y haze out there. Even the most dedicated person can find themselves adrift in all the conflicting information out there. Shoot, sometimes even I stand in front of my probably-far-too-elaborate recycling system in our kitchen holding a piece of packaging that I’m not quite sure what to do with.

And so, the Hive team is here to start clearing the fog! To start, let’s take a look at something that continues to furrow the brows of a majority of folks across the world: compostable packaging.

Composting: You already definitely know what this is 100%… But just to verify your facts:

First, what exactly does “compostable” mean, and how is it different (or not) from something that is “biodegradable”? 

In general terms, something compostable will break down into harmless, organic components when exposed to the right conditions. I know you’re wondering what these conditions might be, and the answer is, as usual: it depends. But, the three critical components are time, heat, and oxygen. A compostable product requires a very specific level of all three to break down fully. It’s important to note also that a product labeled “compostable” must adhere to a universally-accepted strict standard for breaking down completely within a certain window of time. Anything could technically be sufficiently degraded two million years from now, but current standards place “a reasonable amount of time” for a product to fully degrade at 180 days. Things may break down before that, but after 180 days, it’s lights-out on composting eligibility. Sorry, styrofoam.

Given the high standards of composting, you might be wondering what you should expect from something labeled “biodegradable.” Well, it’s nothing. There is no standard for this attribute. It may be great, it may be terrible, but nobody knows. Some states, like California, have banned using the word in plastic product labels (and banned “compostable” unless it has a certification) because of the enormous gray area that comes with it. Sometimes, “biodegradable” can even be used to describe plastic products that break down into only smaller microplastics, which can seep into the soil and waterways, wreaking havoc on the environment. So be careful when it comes to biodegradable.

So How Can You Compost?

You’re probably thinking you just need one of those countertop buckets, and you can just toss anything compostable in there and you’ll be good to go, right? Well, it's a little more complicated than that. There are two main, different kinds of compostable packaging to keep your eye out for as a consumer: “home-compostable” and “industrially-compostable.” “Home” means the product that needs very low thresholds for heat and time, generally the conditions you would find in a backyard compost heap or countertop bucket situation. These are usually your paper towels, any and all organics waste (fruit rinds, coffee grounds, eggshells), and some cloth items. And “industrially” means something entirely different. Like all those plastic “Eco” cups and things you see (you know the ones with the leaf on them). These things are industrially compostable. Your backyard heap isn’t going to cut it for those cups. They need high-heat conditions that are available only in specialized facilities, which aren’t very common in the US right now. If you don’t have access to one of these facilities, be sure to put industrially compostable items in the trash, not the recycling bin. Yup, compostable does not equal recyclable. If you do go to a community composting facility, ask if they accept industrially compostable items or just things certified as home compostable. 

Another question that usually comes up under this category is: what about bioplastics? 

Bioplastics are tricky. When it comes to composting, it’s somewhat of a rectangle/square relationship: compostable plastics are usually bio-based, but all bio-based plastics are not compostable. They’re also somewhat of a double-edged sword from an environmental perspective. On the one hand, reducing the amount of petroleum-based plastic in the world is great. But on the other hand, it may not avoid fossil fuels the way you might imagine, given the energy consumption needed for the agricultural stages and processing of the biomaterials. And there are no real widespread capture systems for bioplastics, so most end up in landfills, where they stay as plastics. So, while that bioplastic cutlery might seem like an attractive choice, it might be better to simply choose bamboo or reusable metal alternatives.

Now that you’ve sailed through our composting crash course with flying colors, you may be wondering what to look for in disposal instructions for product packaging while you’re shopping. Whenever you’re on Hive, check out the “How to Dispose” section on each product page to find out exactly where to put that cracker box or tea bag—we make it crystal clear! And when you’re out shopping elsewhere, look for a couple of the certifications for home and industrial compostability: TUV Austria OK Home, TUV Austria OK Industrial, BPI, ASTM D6400 (Industrially compostable), and ASTM D6691 (breaks down fully in marine environments, but you probably won’t see this one much).

Thanks for stopping by as I dug deep on composting (yes, I’m really leaning in on the dirt pun), and feel free to reach out to if you have questions on this or other sustainability topics."

If you're looking for some of Jamie's favorite products, he's a big fan of Jovial pasta. Their boxes are compostable once you remove the plastic window. He's also a big fan of Alter Eco chocolates and their compostable truffle wrappers. And let's not forget, Quinn's microwaveable popcorn. They've changed the game on this convenient snack by introducing Pure Pop home compostable bags. 

Back to blog