Wednesday, December 11, 2019
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students


The Grey to Green Sustainable Solutions lab in Vancouver researches waste management of compostable plastics.

Compostable plastic abounds with no recycling solution in sight

The increasing amount of compostable plastics is raising concern due to an absence of waste-management options

By Yasasvi Mehta , in City , on November 20, 2019

Compostable plastics have been on the market for decades, but there is still no authority in B.C. responsible for dealing with their decomposition. 

The demand for compostable plastics jumped after the province shifted to reducing single-use plastics in July.

But those newer-style plastics require special conditions to decompose and, as a result, managing the waste created by them is now a subject of intense interest. 

“Right now, we do not have regulations around bioplastics. It is an emerging area and we are following it quite closely” said Gloria Parker, environment management officer at the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

“The discussions around here seem to be about nothing but plastic for the last year.”

The Biodegradable Product Institute logo differentiates compostable plastic from conventional plastic.

Compostable plastics come in various forms, but the most common material used in them is PLA — polylactic acid — which is made of natural starches. These chemical bonds are more easily broken down naturally than those in conventional plastics.

But many plastics that are advertised as compostable may not be entirely biodegradable or may require specialized composting facilities to break them down.

Vancouver companies like Good Natured Products, which produce compostable plastic containers and products, face challenges in explaining how they should be disposed of.  

“We don’t even talk about afterlife options simply because we sell in more than one province, and we do not know if they have composting facilities at their disposal,” said Sadaf Sabet, senior product development manager at Good Natured Products. 

Compostable plastics need longer times to decompose

To address this issue, researchers at Vancouver’s Grey to Green Sustainable Solutions are searching for answers to plastic-waste management.

“The challenge with composting facilities is that they have a turnaround period of two weeks to three months,” said Love-Ese Chile, the principal researcher at Grey to Green. But compostable plastics usually need at least six months to decompose. 

“The problem for people who make compost is that they’d have to extend their process another couple of weeks or a few months,” she said. “That will reduce the amount of composite that can generate over a year and therefore reduce their profits as well.” 

Love-Ese Chile at Grey to Green Sustainable Solutions laboratory in Vancouver.

As such, Chile believes there is a need to increase awareness and use of what are called “third-party certified compostable plastics.”

These are tested by multiple parties before they are brought into the market and can be completely broken down in industrial compost facilities in around six months — except in B.C., where these facilities are still not in place.

So why use compostable plastics at all if there’s nowhere to compost them? The answer is simple, according to Chile: Don’t.

“Use reusable forks or cups rather than single use disposable items, regardless of what plastic it’s made from.”

The Recycling Council of British Columbia is trying to address concerns and are hosting a workshop on Nov. 22 to inform the public about ways to collect and recycle compostable plastic.