What’s the deal with “compostable” packaging?

The manufacturer wants you to take this apart - the cardboard tub going in the GreenCart, the plastic lid going in the Blue Box, and the pouch going in the garbage. The stickers are garbage too.

The manufacturer wants you to take this apart – the cardboard tub going in the GreenCart, the plastic lid going in the Blue Box, and the pouch going in the garbage. Even though they aren’t mentioned, the label stickers are garbage too.

Packaging is a huge business. Corporations spend millions of dollars annually to ensure their packaging choices are eye-catching, memorable, and easy to use — all in the effort to ensure consumers (you) buy their product.

In recent years, many corporations have introduced new packaging or made modifications to their existing packaging — ultimately to save themselves money, but with an added bonus of providing some form of environmental benefit. Some corporations are using smaller cardboard boxes for items like cereal (reducing paper costs). Others are switching from glass to plastic packaging; the plastic being lighter and therefore less expensive to transport. The weight of plastic water bottles has decreased by over 30% in the past decade — saving manufacturing and transportation costs.

At the moment in Ontario, stewards — the corporations that manufacture or import papers and packaging — pay 50% of the net costs of operating the residential Blue Box program (municipalities fund the other 50%). Stewards producing packaging not accepted in the Blue Box must still pay fees.

We are now seeing packaging that’s supposed to be composted instead of recycled. It’s an unusual switch as stewards are paying for the packaging to be recycled, but don’t want it recycled. In addition, most of this supposedly “compostable” packaging hasn’t been tested in Canadian municipal composting facilities before being introduced into the marketplace.

One corporation introduced a crinkly chip bag with claims it could be composted and launched a campaign to promote this great innovation to consumers. When municipalities were finally provided samples to test in their composting facilities, the chip bags were found not to break down at all in the facilities’ composting process. Thankfully, these bags were removed from store shelves.

Another corporation launched a “compostable” gum bottle, again to great fanfare. While the gum bottle is made from pressed boxboard and technically compostable, the gum bottle had label stickers (which don’t compost) and a plastic lid (which doesn’t compost). Most consumers would be unwilling to spend the time necessary to take apart this gum bottle, however the old plastic version of the same gum bottle could easily go in the Blue Box.

This same type of “compostable” packaging is now being used for laundry detergent and protein powder. Labels on the packaging tell the consumer to put the cardboard in their Blue Box or GreenCart, and the inner plastic film liner would be garbage, but there’s no mention of the label stickers or plastic lid. Again, this is a strange packaging choice as the previous plastic laundry detergent bottle and plastic tub could be easily recycled in the Blue Box. And many residents would be unwilling to take it all apart for proper waste sorting.

Many people will ask, “why don’t you just ban certain types of packaging from being made or sold?” It’s a good question. In Ontario, municipalities don’t have the authority to ban items. Banning can be done at the provincial level. However packaging, especially as it relates to Canada’s official languages laws, are within a federal jurisdiction. However, some corporations claim that Canada’s marketplace is too small to dictate terms to their international, global operations.

So ultimately, it all comes down to you, the consumer. Don’t be fooled by claims of compostability. Instead, determine if a package can be easily recycled in the Blue Box, or better yet, be reused.

About John Watson

I'm a communicator, educator and project manager with a focus on environmental and public works issues. I am currently the Environmental Manager for the Municipality of Dysart et al in Haliburton County. Previously, I was the Onboarding Director for ReCollect Systems, where I implemented digital communication products for municipalities and non-profits. For eight years, I was the Waste Diversion Educator Coordinator for Halton Region, where I implemented award winning communications and outreach programs.
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4 Responses to What’s the deal with “compostable” packaging?

  1. nextlevelmhe says:

    Excellent post–until “they” can figure out how to make a package truly compostable (spell check is telling me this isn’t a word, but I like it!), recycling or reusing is still the better alternative. I wonder if there is a way to make a compostable label? That would be a good start!
    Kim Stebbins

  2. Jennifer says:

    So we’ve purchased some “compostable diapers” since the baby gets such horrible diaper rash with the cloth ones. We only use them on her at night. We’ve been using an old Kitty Litter container to put them in and it’s almost full. It says to pull the plastic tabs off and dump all poo in the toilet before composting. We plan on digging a hole in the woods by our yard, adding some cut grass and raked leaves and seeing what happens. We’ll see if it works. So far the only packaging I’ve really seen that is totally compostable are the Pizza Hut boxes. They have no plastic shiny crap on them. They’re just plain old cardboard with a little bit of ink.
    John, thank you so much for visiting my blog —about the difference between Subway and Larry’s Sub packaging and which one I’ll eat at because of the packaging.
    Your title Waste Diversion Educator Coordinator is my dream. Teaching (especially kids) about recycling and composting in the school system (or anywhere) would be my dream job. How would I get involved in something like that?
    I’ve been combing Master’s programs that pertain to waste and what really interests me as a poly sci major. The only thing I keep bumping into is sustainable agriculture, but I want to be on fire for something before I study it and waste and how to keep from acculating it is my biggest passion. I have no idea with how to find a degree for that….or a job.
    And so I blog. And I try to generate zero waste coming out of my home. And I plan on home schooling!
    Would love to hear about your experience.
    Look forward to hearing your story!

  3. John says:

    It’s not true that plastic laundry bottles can just go into the blue bin. The plastic cap has to be separated from the plastic bottle because they are different resins (cap #5 polypropylene and bottle #2 HDPE).

    Packaging eco-friendliness should be viewed through an overall life cycle lens and not just its end-of-life. I like the paper bottle that you showed because paper, as a material, has a way higher recycling rate than plastic. So from a manufacturing standpoint, making packaging out of recycled paper is hands down more eco-friendly than plastic (which is petroleum resin-based and most of it ends up in landfill anyway). Paper also ships lighter than plastic, thus reducing the carbon footprint.

    Composting aside, I think paper bottles are the right direction of minimizing waste. Why should the pressure only be on packaging companies to innovate? That’s the same as saying consumers shouldn’t be so lazy to not recycle or compost properly and waste management companies should innovate their sorting / recycling equipment. All are intertwined in our ecosystem — everyone should chip in to accelerate behavioural change.

  4. Pingback: Coffee discs and cups – what convenience means to waste management | HaltonRecycles

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