The modern, eco-friendly world loves compostable products. Various types of bowls, plates, fabrics, and packaging proudly tout the “compostable” label. Products are then embraced by the environmentally-conscious across the globe. Having the compostable label is important and meaningful, but what does the label truly mean for the product you’re purchasing?
Having the “compostable” label indicates that the product is sourced from organic materials which can be broken down into fertilizer-like materials in an industrial composting facility. Through an industrial composting facility, products like the Transitions2earth compostable spoon you use for your piping hot soup, can be transformed from sturdy and heat-resistant cutlery into natural materials. The resulting natural materials form a mulch substance that acts like a soil conditioner to facilitate a healthy environment.
A crucial part of the composting process for products marked as compostable is the use of an industrial composting facility. Composting speeds up the break-down process for organic materials. The combination of heat, nutrients, and oxygen that result from collecting materials in a closed area, such as a bin, transform the items into fertilizer. Compostable products require much higher temperatures to break down than a backyard compost can provide. Without the abnormally high temperatures created in the facilities, products sourced from natural materials could not break down into environmentally-friendly compost.
How compostable products are turned into compost is just as important as the fact that they are compostable. We at Transitions2earth will take you through how compostable products, such as our cutlery, are “unmade”.
For products such as those made from paper and bioplastics, the process starts with throwing the compostable items into an industrial compost bin. In areas where industrial composting facilities are available, the pile of disposed compostable products from the bin is collected and transported to an industrial composting facility, such as Cedar Grove for the Seattle region.
As soon as the compost bin collections arrive at a facility like Cedar Grove, employees dig through the miscellaneous mixture to extract any non-compostable items such as traditional plastics. After non-compostable items have been filtered out, the remaining compostable pile is ready for the facility’s decomposition process.
Depending on the type of industrial composting facility, one of three methods can be used to turn the pile of compostable items into fertilizer: Windrow composting, Aerated Static Pile composting, and In-Vessel Composting. For Aerated (Turned) Windrow composting, the organic waste is formed into long piles called “windrows” and are periodically aerated or turned. Aerated Static Pile composting involves creating piles of the organic waste to allow airflow and then channeling or extracting air into or from the bottom of the piles. In In-Vessel composting, organic waste is stored in an enclosed environment and regularly turned to aerate the mixture and facilitate the decomposition.
For the Cedar Grove facility that operates in the Seattle region, where Transitions2earth is headquartered, they use the Windrow method. This method is ideal to breakdown virtually any type of organic waste. To detail this method, after the compostable pile is ready for the decomposition process, it is funnelled via a large tube into long, covered rows to begin the material’s breakdown. The windrows are fairly large with a height between 4 and 8 feet with a width of 14 to 16 feet.
Once stored in windrows, the piles can reach the ideal temperatures of 50-60 degrees Celsius (122-140 degrees Fahrenheit). The high temperatures, alongside the nutrients in the compostable waste and the oxygen content provide the perfect environment for microorganisms to break down the matter. Using windrows allows efficient control over the conditions such as temperature, moisture, and airflow to maintain the perfect environment. The windrows are mechanically turned at regular intervals to make sure that all the composting material spends some time in the warm, moist center of the pile where bacterial activity maintains the heat that encourages further breakdown.
Windrow composting can take multiple weeks or months before the compostable matter is ready to use. The organic materials need to be fully broken down in addition to allowing the pile to cool after the process so the resulting materials can be used as fertilizer. As fertilizer, the mulch-like substance can be sold for a variety of uses that will benefit the health of the environment. The compostable bowl, plate, fabric, or packaging that you disposed of into the compost bin has come full circle and returned to the environment it was sourced from, creating an environmentally sustainable cycle.
Compostable products are crucial for the future of environmental sustainability; they replace the need for single-use plastics and after their use, compostable items can be converted back to organic materials. However, not all compostable products are properly disposed of. In a study published by the Institute for Self-Reliance, a nonprofit sustainable community advocacy organization, they found that around 75 million tons of municipal waste (such as food scraps, yard trimmings, soiled paper, wood waste, and bioplastics) are discarded into US landfills each year. The waste is either burned or left to pile up in landfills instead of being taken to composting facilities where approximately 21 million tons of usable compost material could be recovered and used each year. The additional 21 million tons of compost would have critical environmental impacts such as soil remediation, erosion control, and wetland creation.
Using compostable products is only one step on the pathway to sustainability. Just as important is how the compostable products are unmade and ensuring that they are allowed to be unmade. Now that you understand how compostable products are broken down, join us to make sure no compostable bowls, plates, fabrics, or packaging products end up in landfills where they cannot benefit the environment.