Backyard Compostables & Greenwashing

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Some truly backyard-compostable containers

Really Compostable Cutlery

This afternoon I participated in a city-sponsored Backyard Composting Fair with my friend John Barutt, a Master Composter and research scientist who teaches composting classes all over Puget Sound. John and I have worked together managing the gardening and composting at the Bainbridge library for many years and it’s always fun to bounce ideas off one another. Today, we had a blast answering questions and retailing some of our craziest composting experiences. John captured (or maybe astounded) the audience by responding to a question about how to keep critters out of the compost by explaining that if there are mama rats nesting in your compost heap, that’s all natural and good. He says the droppings of small animals will break down very quickly and thoroughly in a good hot compost pile, and the rat burrows will aerate the heap as well. Umm.

I suggested using closed systems like tumblers and aerated bins with covers if pests are a problem. I also made my usual suggestion that few critters are seeking slurry, so if you puree kitchen scraps before adding them to your compost, nobody will be much interested in digging in after them. For some reason, this idea always makes people grimace and say they don’t want to put garbage in their food processor, but if you just scraped those scraps off your kitchen prep area or your plate, why not?

Brilliant Reuse of Coated Cups

So far, my top favorite recycling/composting idea of all time came from some of John’s composting friends who punch 1-inch holes in the bottom of hard-to-compost coated cups, then stack the cups into long tubes. These become air tubes for larger compost piles or bins that work until the pile heats up enough to degrade the tubes, at which point their job is done anyway. Adding air is always important for heating up and speeding up the composting process, and these cup-stack air tubes bring ample air deep into a pile. It’s just as easy to punch out the bottom of the cups before stacking, and cups can be reclaimed by the score at coffee shops, meetings, public events, parties, etc. Brilliant, right?

The fair was intended to introduce local businesses to a range of truly compostable products, from hot cups to takeout containers to birch forks and spoons. Local regulations will soon require businesses to charge 25 cents for the use of a paper or ceramic cup as well as takeout containers and some business owners are not happy at having to find new suppliers aand add another cost to food service. Some customers are not happy about carrying a cup everywhere either but are those really such big burdens? If we really want to reduce the amount of plastic waste we create, individually and collectively, food service supplies are a good place to start.

Better Backyard Compostables

Over the years, John and his scientist/composter buddies have experimented with how well or poorly commercial items that are marketed as compostable really fare in backyard systems, scientific research composting systems, and commercial composting facilities.Not too surprisingly, even among commercial composting facilities there’s a lot of variation in how successful they are at breaking down things like rigid forks and coated cups. Turns out that many supposedly compostable food cups, plates and utensils really aren’t, except in very specific, ideal circumstances.

I’ve also experimented quite a bit with my very ordinary backyard systems, which include a deep bin, a small tumbler, and a little passive brush pile. In my experience, coated cups and plates can go through at least a few seasons looking relatively unchanged, as do most plastic-like utensils. However, there are some kinds of each product that really do break down fairly quickly, especially utensils made of birch and other soft woods, and plates and containers made from puffy cardboard.

Soak & Shred

One key to quick backyard composting of such materials is to soak them before adding them to the compost heap. I stick soiled to-go boxes and used compostable bowls and plates in the sink when I’m doing dishes to give them a head start on breaking down. When they’re soggy, you can easily tear them into smaller pieces that offer microbes plenty of places to latch on and do their degrading work. Both faux-plastic and wooden utensils break down best if I toss them in a pan of hot, soapy water after a party event, just as you would soak reusable utensils. Even some of the wax coated products will break down fairly fast if you soak them first, then shred them. And the wooden ones? They basically break down just like sticks (right?). Onward!

Here are the makers of the best products we saw today:

Green Paper Products

Eco Products Compostable Cutlery Kit With Compostable Wrapper

Foodstiks Compostable Wood Cutlery





This entry was posted in Care & Feeding, composting, Health & Wellbeing, Social Justice, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Backyard Compostables & Greenwashing

  1. Carol says:

    I enjoy reading your newsletter each week. I would also caution folks that one has to be very careful about not introducing plastic into the compost pile via plastic lined containers. Labels on items are often misleading, ie. biodegradable vs compostable. Most take out items are lined with plastic. Thanks for encouraging people to bring their own cup. As you demonstrated, most compostable items need an industrial facility to break down completely. Unfortunately, most areas in our state don’t have access to such a facility. This may change with the passage of HB1799. If you have access to an industrial facility, this organization has lists of acceptable containers.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Good info, thanks, Carol. Our local composting facility can’t handle the supposedly compostable plastics but does fine with many of the truly compostable containers and wooden utensils, probably the case for many people’s local facilities. We have to figure this out!

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