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Innovative Packaging—Part 2

2010 April 15

Last month I wrote a blog on how companies are using technology to green their products.  In that blog, I was raving about the green virtues of “100% compostable packaging.” The blog generated some interest. However, one of the commenters, Alexa, posed some interesting questions regarding the ability of this packaging to actually decompose if it ended up in a landfill instead of a composter. “Without the regular turning of soil and a heated environment that composting provides, will it break down?”

Well, I didn’t have the answer to her question. So I contacted my friends in EPA’s Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery. I was surprised to find out that the fact that a product is classified as “biodegradable or compostable” doesn’t make it 100% green. These so-called compostable or biodegradable products “are only good for the environment when composted” emphasized my colleagues. By sending these materials to a landfill, they will not automatically breakdown. The right conditions have to exist for them to decompose. In fact, the very nature of landfills prevents the vast majority of compostable products from decomposing. The reality is that these landfills are virtually “dry tombs” and they are designed specifically to protect the materials deposited in them from coming in contact with air, water, ground water and sunlight. If these compostable products start to break down and decompose in a landfill, they will remain trapped in place possibly producing methane gas and leachate. They will not magically disappear.

So, for those individuals interested in making these compostable materials live up to their green name, I would recommend visiting the following websites on reducing and recycling organic waste and composting for additional ways to make them truly green.

So, while green packaging still has benefits, the best thing to do for the environment is to not create the waste in the first place. In spite of our best efforts, when waste is created, the next best options for our finances and the environment will be to reuse it, recycle it or compost it! Have a green day.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Tamza permalink
    April 15, 2010

    The GREEN/ sustainability twist on things is getting to the same type of consumer hype associated with ‘natural’ foods (of course most foods are ‘natural’) vs. organic; and ‘low fat’ vs ‘healthy’. Low fat often means less fat for sure, BUT lots of sugar added to ‘recover’ the taste. Similarly recyclable and compostable are also only as good as the actions that follow, not very different from product price ‘rebates’ (these are NOT rebates unless you send in the request and follow up on receiving the $). The REAL solution comes from REDUCTION in the resources … by talking about recycle etc we assuage our guilt somewhat, without contributing much to the environment. Sort of like exercise for weight control, followed by a chocolate bar because I wont feel as guilty! REDUCE REUSE and then IF anything is leftover RECYCLE.
    Perhaps instead of giving people ‘yard waste’ bins and having regular pickups communities and waste management companies should give people composting training/ equipment and REDUCE the frequency of pickups.

  2. Linda Johnson permalink
    April 15, 2010

    So, can I put compostable packaging in our regular food compost pile? we compost all food products (except meat) in soil which my husband turns regularly and produces unbelievable organic soil for our garden. is it ok to just put this packaging in there or does it need a separate compost spot?

  3. William permalink
    April 15, 2010

    It doesn’t surprise me that someone working for the EPA doesn’t research information before making a conclusion.

  4. Dr. E. Waal permalink
    April 15, 2010

    I read this post with great interest in that it is linked to one of our greatest challenges. That challenge is how the population can glean understanding and knowledge in the midst of an onslaught of misinformation and misdirection. Air and water quality are much improved across the US as a result of stringent regulation, however the population has been led to believe that the environment is getting worse. This comes from misinformation from the popular media and from our government agencies. Then we see instances where companies are promoting a product such as a biodegradable, 100% compostable bag, for which people pay a lot more only to dispose of that bag in a place where no biodegradation takes place. I cannot fault the company – they’re giving us what we want. There’s a well known phrase that applies in this instance, “The road to ruin is paved with good intentions.” At a time when economic recovery is so critical for our economy we need to make sure every bit of our individual, company and government spending adds value. That comes through understanding. Please remember, science rules, and knowledge is power.

  5. armansyahardanis permalink
    April 15, 2010

    I am still trauma with “free trade market” which entering to our country now and to make local merchants so shock. Be careful, Lina, your technology be stole by them, and after that they are will sell to here with cheap prices !!!!!

  6. Lina-EPA permalink*
    April 15, 2010

    Tamza,
    Very good points.

  7. Lina-EPA permalink*
    April 15, 2010

    Linda,
    Your compost pile should create the condictions for the compostable packaging to break down. Please do so and share its progress with us.

  8. Lina-EPA permalink*
    April 15, 2010

    Very well said, Dr. Waal.

  9. Lina-EPA permalink*
    April 15, 2010

    Personally, just want to make sure the technology is used for a good purpose or to benefit the community. If they can make it cheaper, so much the better.

  10. murray mccory permalink
    April 15, 2010

    you have done an exceptional commentary on the subject of biodegradable packaging. As a county employee and grant officer, I set up recycling in Okanogan County. It is very successful. Composting was taught in schools, but needs more effort because this is a rural area and composting is the best solution. I worked as supervisor for our new 1995 landfill. Yes, it is state of art, and serves as a dry tomb, storing garbage forever. It will fill up in a few short years. I worked with the state DOE on several projects, including oil recycling, and plastic packaging. Every recycled item must be processed differently.
    As a side comment, I tried to obtain an information request with the EPA on the off-shore drilling situation, here in the USA and abroad. I wanted to know why US tax dollars can support environmentally dangerous projects such as off-shore drilling in Brazil, when it cannot occur here? My request was too broad, and, I know how this works, because I had to reference Washington state legislation for every project that involved a request of any kind. Then I had to have my request reviewed by the county civil attorney for comment. The red tape load prevented many good ideas from even getting consideration, because no one read or understood the laws that the legislator’s passed..
    This is a virtual wall to the average American citizen.
    May your admirable efforts on behalf of the EPA continue to take in the rest of the world when discussing a solution to a problem.

  11. Steven Klein permalink
    April 16, 2010

    There is a simple patented technology that enables beverage empties to be reused in a creative and humanitarian way instead of winding up in landfills.

    Instead of winding up in landfills, empty plastic beverage containers featuring this technology begin a new journey as creative educational toys or as building insulation in third world countries or countries that need to rebuild due to a national disaster.

    If water bottles featuring this technology were donated to Haiti, the children could build simple toys and soccer goals from the empties. Then the empties could be utilized as building insulation to help rebuild the nation. Right now, the millions of water bottles that were donated to Haiti are just clogging up their landfills.

  12. Lina-EPA permalink
    April 19, 2010

    Does this new technology have a name? Any references you can direct us to would be appreciated.

  13. Dinesh permalink
    June 21, 2010

    Lina – I think you’ve hit on one of the two biggest unknowns when it comes to compostable / biodegradable packaging.

    #1) As you say, compostable packaging must be composted to break down. There’s actually a bit more detail which can be critical though, which is that for certain types of compostable packaging (e.g., compostable utensils) the packaging must be composted in a commericial composting facility which operates at a high heat level which is necessary to break these products down.

    #2) The second in my opinion is that the words compostable & biodegradable mean the same thing. Labeling a product as compostable means that it meets a very strict standard for duration of time to break down, disintegration, and eco-toxicity. This standard is upheld by the ASTM. The term biodegradable is not regulated by any authority and is really doesn’t mean much of anything when it comes to packaging. You can see http://vivbizclub.com/blog/2010/03/13/compostable-vs-biodegradable/ for the full ASTM standards if you like. It’s an important point though as many manufactuers are abusing the term biodegradable and misinforming consumers.

  14. cheap car insurance permalink
    July 26, 2010

    This new technology but it will work in this time.. you check this technology is work in now a days.

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