How To Fix Composting and Why We Need ToJuly 20 2021
By: Antoine Ambert, Sr. Director of Sustainability & Innovation at Alter Eco, Head of the Alter Eco Foundation
Composting may be one of the most important topics of our lifetime.
The simple act of composting forces us to rethink our relationship to waste, food, and convenience. A commitment to composting and returning nutrients to the environment from which they came challenges our culture’s ever-growing need for fast and convenient consumption, instant gratification, and single-use everything.
The world has produced 8.3 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s and only 9% of it has been recycled. Every year, 408 billion pounds of food is wasted in the U.S. and the vast majority of it ends up in the landfill wrapped in plastic bags, unable to decompose. We can no longer afford to have our waste remain inert and pollute our environment.
Composting turns our focus away from disposability and towards regeneration, giving new life to what would otherwise have been lifeless, and healing the planet in the process. It turns something perceived as useless, having already served its purpose, into something useful, full of nutrients and organisms that will create new life.
Turning Waste into Soil
“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
― Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture
Credit: Longfellows Garden
Soil is the foundation of life on our planet. The somewhat simple act of composting has the power to regenerate our soil into a living, breathing, carbon-storing powerhouse that can reverse climate change and breathe life into our earth. This is why composting is so important and why we must fight to make it a part of our everyday lives. The power of composting and its ability to build healthy soil cannot be underestimated.
The Different Types of “Compostable”
We know that composting is a key component to reducing the amount of waste on earth, but how do we make compostable packaging a part of our normal, everyday purchases? First, let’s talk about the different types of compostable products out there.
From the familiar garden green waste and kitchen food scraps, to forks made of corn and plant-based packaging made of eucalyptus (like the Alter Eco truffle wrappers). Because these materials are plant-based, they can decompose right into the soil.
Not all plant-based, compostable materials are made the same, though, and the time and method it takes to decompose can vary widely. According to regulation, something needs to decompose within 90 days to be called compostable.
The really good news is that compostable materials exist in a wider variety and for more uses than ever before. There are now innovative options for hard materials that can be used as containers, to flexible film that can be printed and protect food products with strong oxygen and humidity barriers. Each material is individually certified compostable before brands start using it for their products.
The materials exist, but for consumers to increase demand for compostable packaging solutions, they need trust that it will actually end up in compost or be able to compost it themselves. Otherwise, consumers may consider it greenwashing.
For this reason, we should prioritize backyard compostable solutions. Anyone can discard these materials in a planter or a backyard, increasing the chance of composting. The tradeoff with backyard compostable packaging is strict limitations in terms of oxygen and humidity barriers which means thin, fragile packaging that won’t be suitable for many products on shelves.
The Need for Composting Infrastructure
The truth is, most compostable packaging and replacements for single-use plastic are certified for industrial compost, as it needs strong oxygen and humidity barriers. Therefore, it requires composting facilities to be processed. The unfortunate thing is that this vital infrastructure simply doesn’t exist in many parts of the U.S Only a few cities in the U.S. offer curbside collection for compost. We’re lucky that San Francisco, where Alter Eco is headquartered, is one of them. But the fact remains that as of 2018, only 185 full-scale composting facilities exist in the entire U.S.
In absence of curbside collection, you can find some compost collection points through websites like Find A Composter, but this often means you would need to drive many miles to drop off compost, most likely once a week since it would start decomposing in your kitchen. It is so much easier to drop it all in the landfill trash bin, and without widely available curbside collection, composting won’t increase in the US. Only 4.1% of food waste is composted in the U.S. Imagine what that number would be if curbside collection was available in more cities.
What Can We Do?
VOTE for elected officials who understand the importance of reforming our food system to reverse climate change. Officials that understand plastic pollution is a big contributor to climate change and that composting is one of the solutions necessary to draw down carbon emissions and reverse climate change. Composting facilities are often partly financed by public funding coming from local governments, so advocate and vote for officials willing to make the composting infrastructure necessary a priority.
LOBBY as companies mostly, using your influence and network of consumers, for urgent solutions to promote compostable solutions against single-use plastics. New regulations have the capabilities to better include externalities of plastic and compostable solutions into the cost of each material, especially through environmental tax mechanisms:
USE & BUY compostable packaging! We can all create change with our dollars and preferences. Existing waste facilities will evolve as they see more and more of these materials coming through their processing lines.
Credit: Kellogg Garden
While we have a long way to go, remember that compostable plant-based materials are still better than extracting oil from the ground to create more plastic, even if those compostable materials end up in landfills or the ocean. It won’t harm the environment the way plastic does, so don’t wait for industrial composting facilities or curbside collection to be available in your area to use compostable solutions. Choose compostable packaging over plastic anywhere you can, and limit your food waste as much as possible.
Small acts like these multiplied by all of us will drastically decline the amount of waste we create every day that ends up in landfills for hundreds of years. We have the power to heal the earth with the choices we make every day.