Composters Don't Want Your Packaging, Especially Your Bioplastic

Composters Don't Want Your Packaging, Especially Your Bioplastic

Posted on Dec 14th 2022

EcoEnclose utilizes a research-based Sustainable Packaging Framework, which has helped us develop a line of ecommerce packaging we are proud of, and hope the companies we serve are proud to use for their shipping needs.

But every so often we revisit the question of "Should We Offer a Compostable Bioplastic Mailer?

We know a lot of eco-minded companies wonder if these options are a better alternative to traditional plastic, and many companies ask us directly if we can start carrying them.  Our research has always shown us that these mailers (made with corn / PLA and petroleum / PBAT) are not a sustainable alternative and should be avoided.    

Recently, we looked into these mailers again, this time to understand if and how access to composting is growing across the country, and what materials these composting services are accepting. 

If more households can easily compost bioplastic mailers, then perhaps compostable bioplastic mailers may be worth looking at again.

Access to Industrial Composting Nationwide

We looked at the top 20 most populated cities in the US to find out which ones have curbside composting services and which don't. 

We found that municipal curbside composting is still surprisingly limited across the largest cities in the USA. This aligns with BioCycle's research that only  4% of US households (5.1 million households) are served by a regular, curbside compost service

Thankfully, there are a lot of independent compost pickup services to fill these gaps. That is great to see. But, overall, this is a great reminder of how hard it is for most Americans to compost their food waste right now. 

What to Composters Accept, What Do They Reject? 

The vast majority of both municipal and independent composting services for households do not want compostable bioplastic. In fact, most do not even accept paper packaging. Those that accept it do so because of pressure from their community and as a necessary evil to help ensure food waste is composted rather than landfilled. There is no desire among composters for clean packaging that carries no organic matter. 

I reviewed the most common curbside pickup composting service in the 20 most populated American cities and found only a handful that list certified compostable plastic and plastic-coated paper food packaging (such as Ingeo cutlery and EcoProducts hot cups) as Accepted items. None would accept compostable poly mailers.

This also aligns with BioCycle's research that less than half of the municipal composting facilities they surveyed accept bioplastics, and among those that do - the focus is on paper coated with bioplastic, certified compostable foodwares, and compostable liner bags for compost bin. 

Composting facilities that have previously accepted compostable bioplastic food packaging are actually slowly migrating away from these items. They originally bowed to pressure from manufacturers and citizens to accept these items, but found that the resulting operational challenges, contamination and degraded compost were not worth it.  Oregon Composters has put forth nine key reasons why they have now banned bioplastics from their green bins. Last month, Colorado's composter - A1 Organics - banned everything except for food and yard waste. They no longer accept even paper-based items like paper towels and coffee filters.

We also found that most programs also do not want your clean, thick paper packaging - like cardboard or paper mailers, despite the fact that these items are fairly readily recyclable. Those compost services that do take paper state clearly that they want "unrecyclable paper" such as a soiled pizza box or takeout container only. Please follow their guidelines and recycle any paper mailers you use.  

Several years ago, the standing assumption was that more and more Americans would have access to composting services that accept bioplastic. 

But a review of what is actually happening shows a different story: Industrial composting is growing, but still quite slowly. Additionally, the acceptance of bioplastics continues to be limited and composters are doing more to limit these materials in their stream. 

This makes logical sense given that composting is best reserved for organic matter that can't be recycled: yard trimmings, food, manure. These trends serve as a good reminder that there is no one optimal end of life for all materials. Just because a banana peel should be composted does not mean a box should.  

Composting Services and Acceptable Inputs Across Top 20 US Markets 

The following chart provides more detail on the 20 cities we reviewed: What kind of composting service they offer, and what materials are on the "Yes to Compost" versus "No to Compost" list in the city. There is a lot of nuance behind this information. For example, in one city soiled cardboard pizza boxes might be accepted as is, but in another city they must be unprinted and shredded before composting. In one city, they may say "no" to all bioplastic except for BPI certified liner bags, but others may also ask that you not use these liner bags. 

Please refer to your own composter's "In vs Out" list for specific guidance when you're composting at home! 

Additionally, some cities have a dozen independent composting services. We did our best to find the most commonly utilized one in the area, and drew from that one service's list of acceptable items. Finally, many of these cities do offer short-term "Yard Waste Only" special pickup service each year. These highly specific services were not included in the chart below. 

City Compost Pickup Available? Link to Service Yard Trimmings Food Scraps Unrecyclable Paper  (Soiled) Bioplastic food Packaging & Paper Coated with Bioplastic Compostable Ecommerce Package
New York Paused curbside composting due to COVID budget cuts. Dropoff programs are still operating Click here
Yes Yes No No No
Los Angeles Green Bin Program Operated by City of Los Angeles; Also has a Curb Your Food Waste pilot program. Click here
Yes Only in Pilot Program No No No
Chicago No Municipal Program; Independent Options Exist

Click here

Yes Yes NoNo No
Houston No Municipal Program; Independent Options Exist Click here
Yes Yes Yes (except cardboard) No No
Phoenix Green Bin Program Operated by City of Phoenix

Click here

Yes No No No No
Philadelphia No Municipal Program; Independent Options Exist Click here
Yes Yes Yes (shred cardboard first) No No
San Antonio No Municipal Program; Independent Options Exist Click here
Yes Yes Yes (shred first) No No
San Diego No Municipal Program; Difficult to find a common / widespread pickup service but one dropoff service exists.

Click here (drop off program)

Yes Yes No No No
Dallas / Fort Worth No Municipal Program (Pilot program in Ft. Worth); Other Programs Exist Click here
Yes Yes No No No
San Jose Green Bin Program Run by Recology Click here
Yes Yes Yes No No
Austin Green Bin Program Operated by City of Austin Click here
Yes Yes Yes No No
Jacksonville No Municipal Program; Independent Options Exist Click here
Yes Yes No No No
Columbus The Compost Exchange Click here
Yes Yes Yes (shred first) No No
Charlotte Crowntown Compost Click here
No Yes Yes No No
San Francisco Green Bin Program Run by Recology Click here
Yes Yes Yes No No
Indianapolis No Municipal Program; Independent Options Exist Click here
Yes Yes Yes No No
Seattle Municipal Green Bin Program, Required by City Click here
Yes Yes Yes No No
Denver Municipal Green Bin Program Click here
Yes Yes No No No
Washington DC No Municipal Program; Independent Options Exist Click here
Yes Yes Yes No No
Boston No Municipal Program; Independent Options Exist Click here
Yes Yes Yes No No
Detroit No Municipal Program; Independent Options Exist Click here
No Yes Yes Yes (BPI Certified Label required) No
Portland Municipal Green Bin Program Click here
Yes Yes Yes No No

What About Backyard Composting?

Many of the municipalities above that don't offer curbside pickup strongly encourage home and backyard composting, with a range of resources and product discounts on their websites. Could that be the answer for home-compost-certified compostable mailers? 

No, we don't think so. First, unfortunately, the vast majority of households do not have composting in their home.

Additionally, for those that do, adding in home compostable bioplastics can be a scary proposition, especially if they end up with a high volume of compostable packaging.

I have three compost bins at home - one for my worms, one in my backyard for certain food scraps and chicken droppings, and one curbside pickup bin. Here in Boulder, our composter (A1 Organics) accepts compostable plastic foodware but will not accept a compostable poly mailer. 

So my only option would one one of my home compost bins. After reading about what various programs do and don't accept, I will even more actively keep any bioplastic out of my bins. 

The output from these bins goes onto my garden, which then feeds into my soils and food. If industrial composters find that these items lower the nutrients in their compost and increase contamination and toxins, I certainly don't want them in my home compost bin. With this level of doubt, I'd rather see these compostable mailers end up in the landfill than in my soil and food. 

What Does All of This Mean For Ecommerce Packaging?

Composting facilities are clear: they do not want your clean ecommerce packaging and most will not accept your compostable bioplastic mailers.

In the vast majority of cities, bioplastic compostable mailers will be destined for the landfill. And paper mailers - which are both recyclable and compostable - should be recycled.

As a provider of sustainable ecommerce packaging, our takeaway is that EcoEnclose should continue designing and develop products for recyclability, not for compostability. Learn more about the challenges that compostable packaging pose to composters.