Navigating the world of recycling can be a challenge. While the familiar Mobius symbol is easy enough to read, what do the various codes mean, and does your city have the capability to process those particular plastics? This world of sustainability doesn't get any easier as new plastics have begun to enter the market, touting pure bioplastics and biodegradable options. But if these products are "bio" plastics, can they then be composted at home, or should they be collected and sent to a commercial facility?
This article will discuss the world of plastics, specifically biodegradable plastics and bioplastics. We will dive into the differences, talk about composting, and review a few frequently asked questions.
- Biodegradable plastics vs. bioplastics: what's the difference?
- Can you compost biodegradable plastic?
- Are bioplastics compostable?
- Three sustainable ways to compost bioplastics and biodegradable plastics
- Five FAQs about composting biodegradable materials
But before we dive too deep into which products would best fit your Lomi and which should go straight to the recycling bin, let's explore the differences between these new plastics.
Biodegradable plastics vs bioplastics: what’s the difference?
It can be easy to see the words biodegradable plastics and bioplastics as the same thing. But just because they both contain "bio" and "plastics" in the name doesn't mean these two products are the same. Suppose too many consumers mix the two up and begin placing the wrong bio-based plastics in the blue recycling bins. The plastic waste could disrupt the recycling stream at your local recycling facilities.
Bioplastics are, for ease of understanding, plastics made from organic materials. These can be polylactic acid (PLA), which has similar properties to fossil-based plastics such as polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PET). Some manufacturers may even label bio-based plastics as 'BioPE' or 'BioPET.'
These plastics can be engineered similarly to fossil-fuel-based plastics allowing a similar recycling process. Certain bio-based plastics can take as long as traditional plastics to break down if not recycled, adding to global plastic pollution. Ensure your bioplastics find their way to the proper commercial composting or recycling facility, which can fully degrade the material in an industrial setting.
Unlike bioplastics, biodegradable plastics contain a time component to break down the product quickly. Biodegradable products begin the breakdown process when coming in contact with different environments, like soil or water, depending on the manufacturer and what the plastic is becoming. Now, some bioplastics are biodegradable. But it should be noted that the terms biodegradable and compostable plastics are not interchangeable descriptors.
Is biodegradable plastic compostable?
Yes, most biodegradable plastics are compostable, but they will need to be processed at an industrial composting facility. These facilities use a precise composting strategy to break down the plastics quickly and efficiently. This processing of biodegradable plastics should run the course of natural decomposition, which is an average of six months, and leave no toxic residue.
Simply tossing a compostable plastic container a few inches beneath the soil or in your garden compost bin and forgetting it is insufficient to decompose these products. As such, not all products have gained approval for residential composting.
Also while discussing compostable and biodegradable plastics, it's important to remember that most products will be one or the other, but also sometimes both. Confusing, we know. Compared to biodegradation, which is the breaking down of something when exposed to an environment, composting is the artificial process of using heat, humidity, and microorganisms to break down organic material. This moment is when understanding the different recycling symbols on your plastic products will help inform you which can be locally composted and which should be recycled.
Many consumers may wonder what measures are being set for new biodegradable plastics joining the market. Various standardization groups, such as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International), have developed the codes and definitions to help create the standards for labeling these bio-based plastics. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and other similar organizations around the globe, further help to enforce these rules, limiting false advertising for products entering the market.
This knowledge allows you to rest a bit easier knowing that these groups make sure companies accurately label their products. Here are a few of the standards put in place by standardizing bodies for the proper labeling of compostable plastic:
- ASTM D6400 (American Society for Testing and Materials)
- ISO 17088:2021(International Organization for Standardization)
- EN 13432 (European Committee for Standardization)
Products adhering to these standards are leading the way in biodegradable and compostable plastics. Other certifications for compostable products are also on the market on behalf of independent groups that ensure product quality. These groups include DIN Certco and Vincotte in Europe, Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) in the United States, Japan BioPlastics Association (JBPA) in Japan, and other organizations.
Some products will be labeled to confirm that at-home composting is possible. In Europe, a certification issued by Vincotte marks plastics approved for home composting. Unfortunately, in North America, no such certificate equivalent to this European standard yet exists. And to make it more confusing, all compostable plastics often fall under the miscellaneous catch-all plastics category, the recycling Mobius with a "7" in the center. Luckily, these will usually have a multi-component label marked with a compostable notice. However, this typically means composting at industrial composting plants. Be sure to do research and use your best judgment before attempting to add biodegradable plastics to your compost bin at home.
Lomi is an excellent way to compost select biodegradable products at home. Here are a few types of products that can be added to your Lomi countertop composter.
- Lomi-approved compostable kitchen bags
- Lomi-approved compostable bin bags
- Lomi-approved compostable spoons
- Lomi-approved compostable assorted utensils
Do not add any non-Lomi-approved plastics to your electric countertop composter. These products have not undergone extensive testing and cannot be guaranteed to break down into efficiently. Lomi regularly tests what new products break down efficiently, so check back often to see what products have become recently approved.
Are bioplastics compostable?
Not all bioplastics are compostable. While bio-based plastics are made out of plant material and not fossil fuels, these products can still be structurally indistinguishable from traditional plastic. Bioplastics not engineered in this way can find their way to an industrial composting facility. Still, others run the risk of lengthy breakdown times and require recycling.
If your home has an assortment of bioplastic products on its shelves, here are things to consider before attempting to compost them:
- Are your bio-based plastics in good condition? Can your bioplastics be reused before joining the compost or recycling bins?
- Are these bioplastics engineered to be biodegradable? Do they break down in the soil, water, or sunlight?
- Do the bioplastics on your shelves fall under a category where they can be composted or recycled industrially? Does your local municipality have the capabilities to process this particular bioplastic?
- Are the bioplastics able to go in your backyard compost bin? Are they Lomi-approved for countertop composting?
Now that we've explored these plastic products, you may be wondering what might be some of the best ways to handle them are at the end of their expected lifecycle?
Three sustainable ways to compost bioplastics and biodegradable plastics
Now that we understand bioplastics and biodegradable plastics better, we can look into a few available options for sustainably composting these plastics. Understanding where these plastics can go can be confusing, so we've broken the options into three main categories: home composting, industrial composting, and recycling.
Why go through the hassle of collecting the bioplastics and sending them away to a distant location when you can get the satisfaction of breaking them down right at home. Numerous Lomi-approved products will fit alongside your food and plant scraps right on your counter. Place the approved plastic products into your instant kitchen composter, use an appropriate mixture of compostable materials, and set it to the recommended Lomi mode.
Not all products are Lomi-approved. Before adding plastic to your Lomi, explore what products and packaging have already shown the ability to break down through at-home composting. For the plastics that may require more specific conditions for decomposition, see if industrial composting is available in your municipality.
Use this method if: You want to compost food items and reduce the organic waste finding its way into the garbage. Lomi is a great alternative to a garden compost bin and you can also use it to break down bioplatics. But make sure to use only Lomi approved plastics.
2. Industrial composting
The next best step is industrial composting for the plastics your Lomi can't break down. In this process, your compostable plastics become soil conditioning material, similar to the Lomi, but at a grander scale. The carefully controlled decomposition process achieves the necessary heat to break down the products efficiently. These facilities help ensure the decomposition rate is on par with natural elements like fruits, vegetables, and other organics. Approved plastics that find their way to industrial composting are mostly composted by the six-month mark, leaving no toxic residue behind.
The issue with industrial composting is that not every city has the required sorting sophistication. This limitation may restrict the composting you can do, forcing you to explore other options. With enough time, these commercial facilities will become more commonplace. Still, only select cities can afford the cost of large-scale composting at current demand levels. Reach out to your local municipality or recycling facility to determine if industrial composting is available in your area.
Use this method if: Sending your biodegradable plastics to a commercial composting facility is best done when you cannot break down the product at home. Ensure your city has a composting location and check with local groups before sending away your compostable plastics.
Recycling is at the end of this list because it is another excellent alternative when industrial composting isn't available. Not all bioplastics and biodegradable plastics will qualify for recycling, so it is essential to research which services are available where you live. Suppose your recyclable plastics meet the criteria for recycling. In that case, it will always be better than sending the product to the landfill and contributing to plastic waste.
It is essential to note which of your plastic product qualifies for recycling. Compostable plastics intermixed with petroleum-based plastics can disrupt the recycling stream.
Use this method if: Recycling is a better option than the landfill when industrial composting is unavailable. But before recycling, be sure to check that your local recycling facility can process your product to reduce the likelihood of recycling disruption.
Five FAQs about composting biodegradable materials
As we navigate the rapidly emerging world of composting biodegradable products, it can be challenging to find an answer to the many questions we have. Below are five frequently asked questions about composting these bio-based plastics.
1. Can biodegradable bags be composted?
Compostable plastic bags are biodegradable, but this doesn't mean the reverse is true. Thanks to targeted engineering, biodegradable plastic bags break down when coming into contact with soil or water. In contrast, compostable plastic bags are meant to compost when exposed to heat and humidity.
When composting a compostable plastic, it isn't enough to sprinkle dirt over it and leave it to biodegrade. It is best to have a compost bin where you can add additional organic materials and maintain a careful watch over the breakdown process.
2. Are biodegradable packing peanuts compostable?
Yes. Biodegradable packing peanuts can be dissolved in water or added to your compost pile. Unlike fossil-based plastics, biodegradable packing peanuts come from natural sources, like wheat and corn starch.
If you're looking to tell if a packing peanut is biodegradable, it all begins with the color of the peanut. The color of the packing peanut shows the material origins. For example, green peanuts contain a minimum of 70% recycled materials. Traditional Styrofoam peanuts are more often than not either white or pink. Next, see if the peanuts are staticky as biodegradable peanuts will not stick to you like Styrofoam. Finally, drop a packing peanut in a warm glass of water. If it dissolves within a few hours, your peanuts are biodegradable!
3. Can any compostable plastics be added to a home compost pile?
Not all compostable plastics are suitable for backyard compost bins, requiring an industrial composting facility. Still, certain compostable plastics will break down with higher temperatures and moisture application. The Lomi electric composter can compost Lomi-approved compostable plastics.
If you live in Europe, Vincotte issues certificates for home compostable plastics based on the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) standard EN 13432. These certify select plastics as compostable at home and other plastics that biodegrade in water and soil, leaving no toxic residue.
4. What bioplastics can Lomi compost?
The Lomi electric composter can compost a variety of Lomi-approved bioplastics. These include select compostable kitchen and bin bags, approved compostable spoons, and assorted utensils. When composting with Lomi, breaking down only approved bio-based plastic products is crucial.
These are just a few of the Lomi-approved compostable items. When using your electric kitchen composter to break down bioplastics, use the Lomi Approved cycle and follow the mixture requirements. Check out the Lomi FAQ for more questions about Lomi-approved products and packaging.
5. Will biodegradable plastics or bioplastics compost in a landfill?
No. A biodegradable plastic or bioplastic engineered to compost will require heat, moisture, and microorganisms to break the product down into the biomass, similar to finished compost. When composting is not available, recycling may be an alternative.
Due to the lack of demand for adequate composting and recycling facilities, certain states/provinces may not have the technology required for large-scale processing. Before switching to biodegradable plastics or bioplastics, check with your local municipality to see what can be recycled or composted in your area.
There are plenty of technologies that help us reduce waste at home. And, in time, with an increase in demand, industrial composting technologies will become more commonplace. If you live in a city with commercial composting now, take advantage of this exciting alternative that puts materials back into the earth. But if you find yourself in a place without this technology, it may be worthwhile to reach out and inquire why it isn't available and when it may be. Until you're composting at an industrial level, there are plenty of other things you can add to your kitchen composter.
Still unsure about whether or not to get a Lomi? If you've still got a few minutes, take a look at a few of these Lomi reviews!
Written by: Tanner Sagouspe