compostability: are we getting greenwashed?

For those who would rather know the answer right away: yes.

I visited the industrial compost installation managed by EcoWerf on the 18th of June this year. When sending an e-mail to ask if I could learn more about compostability  I was warmly invited by Dirk Verbruggen, projectleader compost, to come over for a visit on site. Rather eager to get out of the house as we were nearing the end of lockdown I grabbed my facemask, camera and some of the items I tell everyone are compostable to show to the compost expert.

Dirk has been testing for compostability as a hobby for over 2 decades now and, as such, he can be considered one of the most knowledgeable people about the subject. In fact, he has received countless requests by companies to test for compostability in “real-life” scenarios. See, most tests are done in a lab in ideal conditions to set the degradation in motion. Dirk, however, puts these products in an environment where your actual garbage is being processed: slightly less than ideal conditions and where time is of essence. 

The European Norm for Industrial Compostable Plastics: “EN 13432 requires the compostable plastics to disintegrate after 12 weeks and completely biodegrade after six months. That means that 90 percent or more of the plastic material will have been converted to CO2. The remaining share is converted into water and biomass – i.e. valuable compost. Materials and products complying with this standard can be certified and labelled accordingly.”

At EcoWerf the organic waste is sorted and composted for 5 weeks in a specific environment (I will not go into detail, but you can find more info here). After these 5 weeks the material is sorted again. All the larger chunks are removed and piled to be burned afterwards. This means that garbage that has not yet disintegrated after 5 weeks will not be turned into genuine compost and rather adds more work for the people at EcoWerf!

It seems there are 2 issues with compostability: 
1. Companies seem to use the word “compostable” as a marketing term far too often taking advantage of issue number 2 (see below), not taking into account real-life degradation scenarios. As such, these manufacturers actually complicate the processing of organic waste.
2. A general misunderstanding of consumers about industrial and home compostability or lack of knowledge on labels. This is understandable as we are being bombarded by labels and certifications all the time. The worst-case scenario can is pictured to your right (or below if you are reading this on your phone). Some pods are (partly) biodegradable and as a result consumers tend to throw all capsules or pods with organic waste. 

 

Long story short: compostability is a slippery slope! The aim of this blog post is not to point accusing fingers nor hate on composting labels. At ŋgopi we encourage thinking critically about certification and marketing statements, whether it is about coffee or something else.

We can safely assume that simple products with a TÜV Austria OK HOME COMPOST label can be processed industrially without any issues. Be aware of thick plastics with non-certified labels: they will not work. It’s a process of learning, testing and improving. We try our best to educate ourselves on the subject and provide you with a lasting alternative for recyclable packaging.