Here’s what you need to know before you buy compostable products, and especially before you dispose of them.
Before You Buy
Are compostable products the best option?
Compostable paper & plastic products are increasing in popularity as people become more concerned about waste. And this can be a great thing! Nobody wants to create more landfill waste—it doesn’t make economic or environmental sense. Compostable is an excellent, much preferable alternative to disposable.
But before you decide to use compostable food-service products—plates, cups, or forks—here’s something to keep in mind: there may be a better option. Consider this:
The hierarchy of food-service items
Durable, washable items that you can use multiple times should always be the preferred option. They save a lot of resources that would have been needed to produce “throw-away” items. They can also save you quite a bit of money in the long run.
- Compostable in a backyard compost system
Products made entirely from uncoated paper or plant fibers will break down easily in a simple backyard compost pile. Certified compostable, “vegetable-derived” plastics don’t fit into this category, as they need higher temperatures and greater bacteria concentrations than are usually available in a backyard system.
- Compostable in a commercial compost system
These items must be certified compostable (see Specifications for Compostable Products below). Often they are made from a combination of different compostable materials, like paper, wood, and/or 100% compostable vegetable-derived plastics that require a commercial compost system to fully break them down. Note: although most compost produced using vegetable-derived plastics (compostable plastic bags, etc.) breaks the materials down completely and contains no trace of them, compost produced from these materials is not approved by the Vermont Association of Composting for use on 100% organic gardens.
Recyclable items are the lowest priority on this list because food and beverages are contaminants in a recycling system, and it can be extremely difficult to ensure that the recyclable items are clean and dry in a food-service establishment. Contaminants, like stuck-on food residue, lower the value of the recyclable materials and, in some cases, cause a bale of otherwise valuable recycled materials to be rejected by a recycling company and sent to a landfill instead. Using recyclable products provides zero benefit unless care is taken to ensure that the items collected are clean, dry, and separated before delivery to a recycling facility. Ensuring this process requires constant monitoring and education, and can be difficult in many environments.
For more easy-to-understand guidelines for event organizers or business owners considering the purchase of food-related products, view the Purchasing Guidelines for Compostable Food-Related Products (PDF) produced by CSWD.
Are compostable products right for your situation?
If you can answer “yes” to ALL of the following questions, then choosing compostable products may be a good decision for you.
- Can you provide separate bins for each type of material at your event (recycling, composting, and/or trash) that look entirely distinct?
- Will the bins be placed together inside of a waste station that is easy for attendees to locate?
- Will the bins be clearly labeled (i.e. will you have signage indicating what items go in which bins)?
- Will you be educating the attendees about which items are compostable, either by making an announcement or by planting a volunteer at each waste station? (CSWD may be able to help you with this one. See the Waste Warrior program for more details on event volunteers.)
- Will you have staff to pick trash out of the compost bin, and vice versa? (No matter how good your education and labeling efforts are, some people just won’t get it. Using compostable products responsibly may require you to spend a little extra time and energy.)
If you answered “yes” to ALL of the above questions, then check out our Compostable Products Buying Guide for specific recommendations on compostable products and the companies that produce them. Or keep reading for general guidelines to determine what is acceptable in our composting system—and what is not.
There’s lots of “green-washing” out there, and many products are labeled in a way that makes them sound compostable when they really aren’t. Take our word for it—if a product is in the Compostable Products Buying Guide, it’s 100% compostable in our system.
Specifications for Compostable Products
To be accepted in our composting system, products must have been independently tested and proven to meet the following standards when disposed of in a commercial composting facility such as Green Mountain Compost:
- The entire product will completely break down into organic matter
- The breakdown will happen within 180 days
- The microorganisms present in compost will consume the material at the same rate as they would natural materials (i.e. food scraps, soiled paper, leaves, etc.)
[In 2014, we completed our own Compostable Cutlery Test with a variety of locally available “compostable” brands. Not all of them lived up to their hype. Click here to see the results.]
Buy only products that meet at least one of the following criteria:
- The product packaging or website for this specific product includes the BPI logo (see image to the right) OR
- The product packaging or website for this specific product includes the phrase “meets ASTM standards for compostability” OR
- Product website or packaging indicates that this specific product is composed of 100% untreated & uncoated wood or palm leaves.
To help you find products that are acceptable, we worked with CSWD to create these Purchasing Guidelines for Compostable Food-Related Products. Please share them with your vendor or anyone responsible for purchasing food service products for your business, institution or event.
What’s Okay/What’s Not
The chart below shows general product types and whether they are acceptable for composting at Green Mountain Compost.
GMC will accept any product that has been designated “Certified Compostable” by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI.)* To find out which specific products meet this criteria, as well as companies that produce them, please refer to the Biodegradable Products Institute’s (BPI) searchable Certified Compostable Products page.
Please be careful that the product you select is certified compostable. Some companies that make certified products also make other products that are not certified.
|Uncoated paper products||Napkins, uncoated paper plates (e.g. Chinet brand), paper towels (not used with cleaning chemicals)
|Uncoated paper-like fiber products (certified ONLY)||Clamshells, plates or bowls made from sugarcane (“bagasse”), untreated wood, leaves, or other plant pulps|
|PLA** or PLA-lined cups and bowls (certified ONLY)||Clear PLA cups for cold beverages, PLA-lined paper hot cups and bowls|
|PLA liner bags (certified ONLY)||Many brands available, including Bio Bags, NaturBag, BioTuf and others. Readily available online and at some local retailers (see list below)|
|Compostable utensils (certified ONLY)||Many brands available. Must be certified as compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), or that have met the ASTM D6400 or D6868 testing standards, or be composed of 100% untreated/uncoated wood|
|Petroleum-based plastic of any kind||"Traditional" plastic items like plastic bags, utensils, drinking cups, clamshells, etc.|
|Any products that say “degradable” or any variation of that word, including “bio-degradable” and “oxo-degradable”||Several local businesses use these kinds of bags. If you see these words on a bag, it should go in the trash. "Green N Pack" brand bags also are NOT compostable.|
*The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) is a professional association that promotes the use, and recycling of biodegradable polymeric materials (via composting). The BPI will grant “certified compostable” status to materials and products that have been demonstrated (via scientifically proven techniques) to degrade completely in approved composting facilities. We’re grateful for the great strides that BPI has made in increasing consumer education and holding companies accountable for their labeling.
**PLA stands for polylactic acid, a polymer derived from renewable sources such as corn starch, cane sugar or tapioca.
Where to Buy Compostable Products Locally
View our Compostable Products Buying Guide for locally available options.
In addition to proof of certification, we require that all bioplastic products be clearly labeled with the word “compostable” or another label readily identifying their compostability so that we can sort them from otherwise identical non-compostable plastics.
Green Mountain Compost reserves the right to exclude any product that does not break down within 8 weeks of standard processing in our system, regardless of whether the product meets the above standards.