Recycling, Composting & Common Misconceptions (Part 2: Composting 101)

Friday November 2, 2018 // By Dana Schlingman

Eco Products

Earlier this year our vendor partners from Eco Products came to present a seminar about the disposables industry, their products and their sustainability efforts. I found the presentation so surprising and informative that I decided to do some more digging through Eco’s online resources. In this blog series, I share what I learned about the single-use products that we touch, trash and often take for granted. (See Part 1: Recycling 101 & Part 3: Making The Most Sustainable Choice)


In my Recycling 101 post, I delved into some of the obstacles encountered in the recycling industry. So now I want to focus more closely at composting. Composting represents “rot” – that last and often omitted “r” from the common reduce, reuse, recycle slogan. While Eco does offer a line of post-consumer recycled content products their Blue Stripe Line (some of which are recyclable), they strive to educate customers about the industry and to encourage them to try composting. With the proper facility and processing, composting is arguably more sustainable and beneficial for the environment. Here’s why:

Composting 101

What Is Compost?
Compost: nutrient-rich soilCompost isn’t just mulch, manure or food waste–nor does it stink. It is nutrient-rich, organic matter that growers use to enrich soil. Compost can:
• Enhance the quality of produce
• Increase crop yield
• Strengthen plants’ immune systems
• Increase soil’s water retention

How Is Compost Produced?
In the natural environment, organic matter will eventually biodegrade or break down into its basic parts within a reasonable amount of time. Composting expedites this process in a controlled environment by exposing organic material like food waste, manure or yard trimmings to air and microbes. These microbes feed on and digest the waste converting it into soil that plants can draw nourishment from. Essentially composting is a natural upcycling process. Check out this video to learn more about composting: Compost Story by Kiss the Ground

What Can Be Composted?
Only natural organic materials can be composted. Man-made synthetic materials like chemicals and plastics degrade very slowly, if at all. In fact, we don’t know how long it takes for polystyrene (#6) to decompose–we have not seen evidence that it does (which means that all of the polystyrene ever created is still in the world). Therefore man-made, synthetic materials are not compostable.

What Makes Eco Green Stripe Products Compostable?
Eco Green Stripe ProductsEco Green Stripe products are made from plant-based materials:
Cold Cups are made with PLA (polylactic acid) from corn starch (though they are designed to look plastic). Unlike the oil, which is used to produce plastic, corn is growable and thus renewable. Furthermore, all of the corn used to produce Eco’s PLA is grown in the U.S. positively impacting our national economy. Plus, because Eco does not use the corn germ (the seed containing the DNA), these products do not contain any genetic material modified or otherwise.
Hot Cups are made with paper from trees harvested in North America; they are lined with Ingeo™ biobased plastic, made from corn grown in the U.S.
Cutlery is made from plant starch.
Containers are made using bagasse, a byproduct of sugar production. When sugarcane stalks are harvested, they're pressed to release their juices which are then processed into sugar. Rather than burning or discarding the used sugarcane stalks, the fibrous pulp is made into a paper-like substance called bagasse. Its natural feel makes it easy to identify in facilities, and its durable form/high heat tolerance makes it ideal for a wide variety of products like containers, plates and bowls.

Can I Compost Eco Products at Home?
Commercial Compost GrinderBecause Eco products have been created to withstand heat, remain durable and not dissolve while in use, they require specific conditions to be broken down. Commercial composting facilities, turn or aerate materials and monitor for ideal conditions (the correct: temperature, moisture content, oxygen content & carbon to nitrogen ratio). Once these conditions are met, microbes are able to flourish. As they metabolize the material, heat is produced and the pile warms to 130-160 degrees Fahrenheit
. Eco Products need this high heat to be broken down, therefore, Eco recommends commercial composting for all of their products. Unfortunately, cutting, crushing or tearing Eco Products into smaller pieces does not help them biodegrade.

To learn more about the commercial composting process, check out this informative video from Eco Products:

Will Eco Products Break Down Eventually In A Landfill?
Plastic WasteUnfortuna
tely no, Eco Products like most organic material will probably not break down naturally in a landfill, and it will certainly not be transformed into usable soil. Because waste is stored in airtight plastic trash bags, compacted and then covered, aerobic microbes are not able to metabolize the waste. They need air and light in order to thrive and break down material. What’s worse when organic material decomposes in these less ideal circumstances, anaerobic bacteria feeding on it produce methane, a greenhouse gas 4x more potent than carbon dioxide.

A Summary of the Benefits of Composting:
• Composting is a natural upcycling process that transforms waste into something usable without producing any harmful byproducts or waste.
• Composting produces soil that can be used to enrich food, increase crop yield and make land more fertile.
• In general compostable products are more sustainable because they are made from natural renewable resources like corn or sugarcane byproducts rather than oil (used to make plastic).
• Unlike recyclable products, compostable products are broken down and returned to a raw resource. Recyclable plastics can only be recycled or processed a limited number of times (they are not returned to a virgin state). Eventually, the repurposed material is no longer usable and it must be discarded.

What If I Don’t Have Access to a Commercial Composting Facility?
Sadly, composting is still in its proverbial gawky-middle school phase. While many are beginning to see and take advantage of the powerful benefits of composting, the widespread infrastructure has not yet been created to support composting everywhere. Unfortunately, because PLA is not a plastic, it is categorized as “other” (#7) and thus is not recyclable. Without access to a commercial composting facility, compostable products are diverted to landfills. Which begs the question, should I still purchase compostable products even if they can’t be composted?

With Imperfect/Incomplete Recycling & Composting Systems, What’s the Most Sustainable Option for Consumers?
SustainabilityThe answer to this question is complex because it varies based on the diverse challenges and circumstances faced by each individual or business. To help address these varying needs and capabilities, Eco makes compostable products, recyclable products and products made from post-consumer waste. Eco knows that most customers aren’t able to close the sustainability loop with their practices to achieve a zero waste status, so they offer products that have beginning-of-life benefits and end-of-life benefits. For example, products made from post-consumer waste have a beginning-of-life sustainability benefit because they repurpose waste even though they might not have an end-of-life benefit because they can’t be recycled again.

In the last post of this series, I will focus on how to choose the most sustainable product when considering beginning-of-life benefits of a product, access to composting/recycling facilities and business challenges.

What To Do In The Meantime:
• Find out if there is a commercial composting facility near you.
• Check out this great article from Barista Magazine on the subject: Goal: Zero Waste Talking Trash About Coffee: An Overview of Reducing Waste In Cafes by Ana Mallozzi & Jonathan Levy
• Learn more about Eco products: FAQ about Eco Products & Eco Blue Stripe & Green Stripe Product Lines
• Visit the
Composting Council's Website

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