A compostable plastic coffee cup lid from the compost. (Photo: lejre06/Flickr via Creative Commons)

Topics: Ethical Living | Environment

Why compostable and biobased plastics won’t save the planet

Karen Wirsig of Environmental Defence says the adoption of this sort of packaging is greenwashing


Most people know plastic is bad for the environment. The vast majority of it is never recycled, it will never fully break down and it’s made from non-renewable fossil fuels. Biobased plastics, which are made out of renewable materials like corn, sawdust or vegetable oils, seem like one part of the solution. Biodegradable and compostable plastics, which can break down under certain conditions, seem like they might be too, but they often don’t end up in conditions that will make that happen.

Karen Wirsig is the plastics program manager at Environmental Defence, a Canadian environmental advocacy organization. Broadview talked with her about bioplastic packaging, its limitations, and what Canada needs instead.

Emma Prestwich: Do you think that bioplastics and compostable plastics play a role in reducing plastic waste?

Karen Wirsig: The short answer is no. There’s a lot of attention placed on so-called bioplastics and biodegradable and compostable plastics, and that worries us for a couple of reasons. First of all, it seems like a strategy to extend the life of single-use plastics and we absolutely need to get away from single-use plastic packaging. 

The kind of solution we’re looking for involves a reduction of plastics, in the use of plastics and elimination of packaging whenever possible. Whatever can’t be eliminated should be reusable many, many, many times and recyclable at the end of life. Whatever still must be single-use, for whatever reason, should not be plastic wherever possible.

Second, we’re not convinced about the compostability of plastics. Often when plastic is described as biodegradable, what that means is it will just break down into fragments that are very problematic in the environment. So biodegradability is not going to save us from plastic pollution at all.

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EP: Can you speak more about why you think both bioplastics and those cited to be compostable have become so popular?

KW: I think they are being adopted in the packaging industry as a “green alternative” to single-use plastics and that’s essentially greenwashing. We’re trying to get away from fossil fuels, that’s clear, but alternatives to fossil-fuel plastics still require the use of natural resources, including, in the case of some bioplastics, crops that could actually feed us. 

If the value of non-fossil fuel plastics goes up, you can imagine that there would be a call for more clearing of land and replacement of food crops by these suddenly more profitable plastic crops, and is that really what we want and need at this point in our history?

EP: I live in Toronto, which does not accept compostable plastics into its compost stream. Do municipalities have a role to play in recycling products like this?

KW: Municipalities, at the moment, are on the receiving end of a lot of greenwashing garbage. We’re convinced in the store to buy these coffee pods or that package because it’s compostable, but the people selling us that coffee pod or that other so-called compostable packaging have not actually checked with the major municipal waste management systems and recyclers and composters to see if it’s actually possible to do what their packaging says it will do. So municipalities are just stuck with it. This stuff is either contaminating the green bin stream, or it’s contaminating the waste stream, or it goes straight into the garbage, which is unfortunately where it belongs. 

EP: What about the producer’s responsibility?

KW:  Ontario does have legislation in place to ensure producers take responsibility for certain products and packaging that they put on the market. They become responsible for collecting that material and for meeting certain waste diversion targets. These rules are meant to drive better decisions when it comes to designing and putting packaging and products on the market. 

In June, the Ontario government put forward new regulations around our blue box materials. Right now, those are the responsibility of the municipalities and they’re half paid for by producers. Soon, that responsibility will transition 100 percent to the companies. 

Unfortunately, compostables are exempted from that regulation. So companies will still be able to put so-called compostable packaging on the market, but they won’t be responsible for what happens to it at the end of life. That opens the door wide to some very bad greenwashing. 

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EP: The appeal of bioplastics and compostable plastics is that they’re more convenient than reusable containers. Is there another alternative?

KW: I think that reusable systems have to become much more widespread and convenient and affordable. There’s really no other solution. 

I think most people in Ontario who drink alcohol are used to paying a deposit on their alcoholic beverage containers and either taking those back to a Beer Store for a refund or leaving them on the curb for somebody else to take back. So I think what we see as a solution is just to grow that model that we know already works. 

EP: How can the province do that?

KW: So the first essential thing is for the province to expand that deposit return program. Most other provinces in Canada have deposits on most other beverage containers to ensure that those get taken back and are much more likely to get recycled and reused. 

The global soft drink companies have really pushed us away from [the reselling] model in North America because they don’t want to have to deal with the waste or the used and discarded containers but this is a system that works. You can just imagine how much waste that prevents from going into nature but also into landfills and incinerators because those bottles are refilled.

EP: Do you see anything encouraging in the arena of more reuse?

KW: We have been circulating a letter that asks the federal government to put the emphasis on reuse as part of their plan to get to zero plastic waste by 2030. That letter has now been signed by 76 organizations and companies across the country, many of which actually provide reuse services and would love to scale up. So that is a glimmer of hope. 

The federal government also needs to help Indigenous communities, especially the more remote communities that don’t have waste management systems, to transition to reusables. Obviously, the first priority in Indigenous communities is to get safe drinking water. But when water needs to be brought in, it should not be in single-use plastic bottles whenever possible.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Emma Prestwich is Broadview’s digital editor.

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  • says:

    I appreciate that ED's position is pretty much "no plastics anywhere, anytime". However, if you'd asked for a comment from a company that makes certified compostable coffee pods, like ours, we'd have reported that we've successfully tested our coffee pods in lots of municipal composting facilities and they break down in as few as 5 weeks - faster than some common food waste. That's why the pods are already accepted in some municipalities and the federal and provincial governments are identifying where compostables can make the most positive impact in Canada.