The Complete Guide to Compostable Plastic

While compostable plastic is exactly what it sounds like (plastic that can be composted), the finer points are a little more nuanced and require a little more background knowledge to fully understand. In this guide, we cover all the basics of compostable plastics, what it means to be compostable, non-compostable bioplastics, humus, hummus, and all the juicy compost details you’ve been craving. 

 

What Does it Mean to be ‘Compostable’?

 

One of the most common questions we come across when interacting with customers is what exactly ‘compostable’ even means. Something that is compostable is made entirely from natural materials, namely carbon-based organic matter like leaves, food scraps, animal waste, grass clippings, and so on, and can be broken down by microorganisms and without chemical assistance. Composting these materials prevents them from piling up in landfills, and allows their nutrients to be recycled and reused for the production of new materials. 

 

How Composting Works

 

Composting is the process of breaking down organic material by using air, water, heat, and a variety of key ingredients to create a comfortable environment for decomposing microorganisms to do their work. The goal of the composting process is to create nutrient-rich humus (no, not hummus...mmmm, hummus) that can be used to promote healthy soil conditions and good plant growth. Compost is used both in the worlds of agriculture and home gardening, and is easy to mix in with potting soil to give your house plants a little extra boost of nutrition! 


Basically, composting breaks natural materials down to their most bare essentials, their nutrients, then makes them available to us for use in our gardens. 


Composting requires a proper balancing of nutrients in order to promote decomposition and the growth of microorganisms. Compost piles require a good balance of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and water, all of which must be provided by you, the compost pile tender. To give your compost pile healthy levels of carbon, be sure to add plenty of dry, brown ‘ingredients’ like shredded dry leaves, eggshells, and ash. For nitrogen, feed your compost pile kitchen scraps like coffee grounds, vegetables, and corncobs. 


Because compost requires oxygen to properly decompose, regular mixing and aeration of the pile will help to enhance its quality. Regular additions of water to maintain proper moisture levels is also key to creating a healthy compost environment, and aids in the maintenance of high inner temperature, another key to composting success. These elements combined create the perfect living and working environment for microorganisms to go to work on food and yard scraps, and aid in the process of decomposition. 

 

Microorganism Helpers

 

While all the ingredients you add to your compost pile will help create the perfect environment, in the end, it will be the microorganisms that do all the heavy lifting. With proper attention and care, your compost pile will have a healthy balance of a variety of microorganisms, each with its own unique purpose. The following are some of the key players in the composting game: 

Actinomycetes: The smell of soil has different connotations for everyone, but no matter your opinions on that warm, earthy scent, its unmistakable odor is caused by actinomycetes. Though technically a variety of bacteria, actinomycetes do not have a nucleus and create visible filaments within the compost that make many believe they are a variety of fungi. Actinomycetes help break down tough, cellulose-rich waste like wood, branches, and leaves. 

Bacteria: You’ve heard of them, you’ve probably tried to get rid of them, but you may not have thought you would ever be setting up an apartment for them, it’s: bacteria! Bacteria make up the majority of compost microorganisms, often comprising up to 90%. Despite being the most numerous, bacteria are also the smallest microorganisms present in compost, though their numbers and types fluctuate depending on the phase of the compost. 

Fungi: When you hear “fungi”, you probably immediately think of mushrooms, and while that is technically true, in this case, fungi mostly include molds and yeast. Fungi help in the decomposition of tough materials, promote bacterial health, and help to break down those materials that bacteria may not be able to, i.e. those with high acid contents, those that are too dry, etc. 

Protozoa: While bacteria and fungi are essential for the composting process, too many of them will create an unhealthy environment. Protozoa find their way into compost piles via water droplets and help to control the bacteria and fungi population. 

 

Compostable vs. Biodegradable

 

Besides confusion over the definition of compostable, the next biggest question we run into involves the differences between something being compostable and biodegradable. It is easy to mistake these two processes as being one and the same, especially considering how often large corporations use lenient marketing regulations to their advantage to tout their biodegradable products without truly explaining what this means to the consumer. 


Most basically, you should know that ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ are not interchangeable terms, and though all compostable materials are biodegradable, not all biodegradable materials are compostable. 


Misleading labels on consumer products lead people to believe that ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ products will be able to decompose in natural environments when in reality, many of these products are designed to decompose in chemically assisted industrial composting and recycling centers. Be aware of “Green Washing” when you buy products labeled “biodegradable”, as many companies use this and other buzzwords to misrepresent the eco-friendliness of their products. 


In truth, being labeled ‘biodegradable’ really means that at some point in the future the item will break down. This is essentially true of all materials, carbon-based or not, as plastics will also begin to break down in the right environments. What is positive about biodegradable products is that, when they do eventually break down, they won’t be breaking down into microplastics, but still may leave behind toxic chemicals and residue. 


More accurately, all materials are degradable, as all materials will eventually break down into smaller pieces, whether or not they fully return to nature. Biodegradable materials, on the other hand, will eventually return to nature, though it may take several years or even decades. Biodegradable materials require specific conditions like those created by a landfill to fully biodegrade and are not compostable. 


Compostable materials will quickly break down fully to natural materials in a compost site, leaving behind no toxic chemicals, micro-particles, or residue. 


To sum this section up: both biodegradable and compostable materials will break down to natural materials, but each requires their own unique environments. Biodegradable items go to the landfill. Compostable items go to the compost. 

 

Landfills & Plastic Pollution

 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably already know that plastic is wreaking havoc on the health of the environment. Plastic production has increased by more than 70% in the last 30 years, and despite global evidence of the destruction of natural ecosystems and resources as a result, the demand for and production of plastic items have barely been affected.


Now, much of the consumer waste being brought to landfills is made up of plastic items, from water bottles and takeout containers to toothbrushes, electronics, and phone cases. Once in landfills, these petroleum-based plastic items spend centuries very slowly breaking down to microplastics, releasing toxic chemicals into the surrounding soil during the long, slow process. Though landfill-bound plastics pose a significant risk to the environment, it is the plastic items that do not make it to landfills that cause the greatest impact on the planet. 


Plastic manufacturing has put a significant toll on natural resources and is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global climate change and rising levels of air toxicity. Plastic thrown away in landfills contributes to poor soil and water quality. Plastic floating through the oceans is being consumed at staggering rates by fish, seabirds, marine animals, and other ocean creatures, and is readily poisoning water supplies and filling oceans with microplastic residue, impacting food supplies. 


Between littering, honest mistakes, and industrial dumping, our oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, and other natural resources/ecosystems are steadily becoming overrun with plastic. More than 8 million tons of plastic are illegally dumped into our oceans each and every year but is certainly not being removed at the same rate. If nothing is done to curb plastic pollution, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean within the next decade.

 

Compostable Plastic

 

Among the many ways environmentalists and consumers are combatting climate change and plastic pollution is with compostable plastics. Compostable plastics, like other compostable materials, can fully break down into natural materials in a healthy, balanced composting environment. Compostable plastic isn’t plastic in the traditional sense since it is not made using petroleum-based chemicals or any toxic ingredients. 


At Pela, our compostable plastic phone cases and accessories are made from Flaxtic, our proprietary bioplastic recipe made from flax shive and plant-based polymers. If tossed in a compost pile, our compostable plastic phone cases will degrade and return to nature in just a couple of months, leaving behind no harsh chemicals, residue, or toxins.  

 

What Compostable Plastic is NOT

 

Despite being a green alternative, lots of people are under the false impression that they can treat compostable plastic the same way they would petroleum-based plastic. Though it can biodegrade and return to the Earth, throwing compostable plastics in the trash to be sent to landfills is not better than throwing away traditional plastic. Compostable plastic is not better for landfills.


In the same vein, many people try to recycle their bioplastics and compostable plastics, mistakenly believing they are being eco-friendly in doing so. Bioplastics cannot be recycled with traditional plastic as they are not made from the same material, and could actually taint full batches, making it impossible for the batch to be recycled after all. Compostable plastic is not recyclable. 

 

BPA, Phthalates, and Toxins

 

Remember how we mentioned that some manufacturers and retailers take advantage of certain regulations regarding the labeling of eco-friendly products to make their products seem better? Lots of bioplastics, though made from some natural materials, still include toxic chemicals and additives like bisphenol-A, lead or phthalates, which can leach into the soil, water, and food, posing harm to natural ecosystems, wildlife, and human health. 


Compostable plastics like the one we use at Pela are free from toxins like BPA and phthalates, making them safe for use in your home compost heap. Once broken down, our compostable plastic won’t leave anything you wouldn’t want in your food behind, so you’re free to use your compost to give your plants vital nutrients to grow healthy and strong. 

 

How to Compost Plastic at Home

 

If we have convinced you that the best kind of plastic is the compostable kind, you are probably eager to create a compost bin of your own! We’ve written a full guide to composting at home complete with lots of DIY tricks to help you save money and get your craft on! Once you have your compost bin set up, you’re ready to compost your first piece of compostable plastic.


Pela phone cases are especially easy to dispose of. Once you are ready to compost your Pela Case, all you’ll need to do is toss your used case in your backyard compost bin, give it all a mix, and let the microorganisms do the rest of the work. If you don’t have a backyard compost bin, check with your local composting facility to see if they accept bioplastics, or return your phone case to us and participate in the Pela 360 program


Stylish, eco-friendly, plastic-free: that’s Pela Cases in a nutshell! Visit Pela online today to discover our full range of eco-friendly phone cases, air pod cases, and accessories.