Although plastic alternatives such as biodegradable and compostable bags are becoming more and more popular, it’s important to understand that different states and countries will have varying rules around what you can use and purchase in their regions.
In Oregon, the Parliament introduced a new law in 2017 which prohibited the selling of biodegradable, compostable and degradable plastic unless they met specific standards. These standards include correct labeling and certification, meaning compostable plastics must meet ASTM standards or OK Compost Home standards by Vincotte.
Maryland Law: Labeling of Compostable, Degradable, and Biodegradable Plastic Products
In October 2017, Maryland introduced a new piece of legislation that would come into effect a year later that regulated the alternative plastics industry and encouraged composting. This legislation relied on compostable and biodegradable plastics meeting certification standards to be sold and used in the State.
The law prohibits a person from selling any plastic product labeled as biodegradable, degradable or decomposable unless they adhere to either the The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards or OK Compost Home (Vincotte standards and labeling adheres to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides.
The law also provides standards for agricultural firms marketed as biodegradable and ensures that compostable bags, food and drink packaging appear different to non-compostable similar items. Items can also not be marketed as both recyclable and compostable.
What Is Compostable Plastic?
Compostable plastic provides a great alternative to the typical toxic plastic most popular items such as plastic bags have been made from for decades. A ‘next-generation’ plastic, compostable plastic is made from renewable materials that will break down when disposed of correctly.
While a typical plastic bag may take thousands of years to break down, compostable plastic can be broken down in an industrial composter, home composter or worm farm under the right conditions. Compostable plastic is made from renewable materials such as corn, soy protein, potato, tapioca starches, lactic acid and cellulose. These materials mean that compostable plastics are non-toxic and can decompose completely into natural components when disposed of correctly.
What Is Biodegradable Plastic?
Biodegradable plastic is providing another option for consumers to feel they are protecting the environment, with no changes to how they dispose of the plastic. It can be disposed of in your usual rubbish and will break down in landfill with light, soil microbes and oxygen.
The benefit of biodegradable plastic is that it will break down faster, as it’s made with specially designed microbes that break down in months rather than centuries or longer. Biodegradable plastic is also often known as ‘bio-based’ plastic as it still contains some toxic chemicals, unlike compostable plastic.
Biodegradable plastic is often made by extracting the sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane. These are then converted into polylactic acids. Another way to make biodegradable plastic is to engineer it from microorganisms which are made to break down the plastic quicker.
However, biodegradable plastic does leave behind some toxic residue when decomposing.
Benefits Of This Law
There are many benefits for states and countries who encourage composting and regulation of alternative plastics, including:
- Encourages composting from everyday people
- Reduces waste going to landfill and turns household waste into useful compost
- Encourages correct certifications and regulation to ensure correct usage and disposal
- Provides additional compost for homes and large landscaping projects
- Increases jobs in rural areas through increased production of compostable plastics
- Raises awareness of the environmental impact of traditional plastic and landfill contributions
- Educates the general public on the different plastic alternatives available.
Oregon residents are also able to compost easily with a weekly collection from the State of their compostable items. Each area will explain what you can compost, which cart they go in and when the collection is. For example, here is Portland’s composting information: https://www.portland.gov/bps/garbage-recycling/compost-guide
What Can’t Be Sent For Composting In Oregon?
It’s important to note that Oregon recommend NOT sending compostable packaging or service ware to their composting facility. This is due to leftover food, the lining on such items, other items inside such as waxed paper or printing on the item.
These are often not compostable and can contaminate the whole pile or add additional costs with extra sorting required. You can however, often compost these items at home in your composter or worm farm by understanding what can go into each and how to separate or clean.
Issues With Composting Plastics
The issue with sending some compostable plastic items to a facility is that they will often prevent the resulting compost from being sold to organic farms or gardens as they can contaminate the whole pile.
Often, food or serving ware marketed as compostable, is treated with chemicals that reduce moisture and grease. These render them non-compostable and can contaminate other items in the compost.
Consumers also often mistake traditional plastics for compostable and place into compost due to the similarity in appearance and similar plastic-coating inside. This means that compost is rendered essentially useless with plastic components.
Unfortunately, there is no way for composting facilities to separate certified compostable foodware from their non-compostable lookalikes when it comes to tonnes of items in the facility. As a result, many waste facilities are no longer accepting compostable food or servingware in Oregon and other parts of the US.
This is particularly true for any organics divisions or in food scrap bins.
Ways To Follow The Law
If you’re living in Oregon, the best ways to ensure you’re following the law is to understand the ASTM and Vincotte certifications, dispose of your plastic alternatives correctly and ensure you only purchase products with the above certifications.
It’s also useful to understand where you can and will dispose of your plastic alternatives such as:
- Home composter or worm farm
- Industrial composting facility
- Leaving out for collection for composting in your bin.
In many areas of Oregon, you can place your food scraps, grass and yard waste and compostable plastics into the composting cart. This is left on your curb each week for collection which is then processed through a composting facility.
Which Is Better: Compostable Or Biodegradable?
When it comes to deciding which plastic is the best choice for the environment, consider a few key things such as: how you will dispose of the product i.e. landfill or composter; whether the product is marked as landfill friendly; whether you can reuse the product and what other options are available to you.
The least toxic between compostable and biodegradable is compostable as it contains no toxic compounds. Compostable plastics will break down (in a composter or worm farm) and not release or leave behind any toxic material.
However, if you’re not disposing of your compostable plastic in the right environment then you should choose biodegradable so that the plastic has a chance of decomposing faster than traditional plastic. This however, can leave behind some toxic compounds after decomposition.
Your choices in how you dispose of the plastic really plays the deciding role in which plastic is best for the environment. If you will compost at home, send to an industrial composting facility or use a worm farm, then compostable plastics are a good choice for you and the environment.
You will also have some good-quality fertilizer if you dispose of it at home.
What Certifications Do Oregon Accept?
As discussed in this article, Oregon accepts two types of certifications: ASTM and Vincotte. So who are these certifiers?
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is a large organization who develop and provide voluntary consensus standards, technical information and services to promote public health and safety, protect the environment and promote sustainability.
ASTM provides certification for biodegradable and compostable materials through a standard specification. Their certification looks at the labelling of plastics that are designed to be composted aerobically in home or industrial composting facilities.
The OK compost HOME seal from Vincotte certifies compostable plastics, in essence, identifying a bioplastic or biodegradable product as being compostable in a non-industrial home compost facility.
When a product is labelled with the OK compost HOME seal, it is considered to have fulfilled the OK compost requirements under EN 13432 / 14995. Vincotte has since been taken over by TUV Austria.
As with all States and countries, Oregon has its own rules when it comes to compostable and biodegradable plastic usage. It’s important to understand your choices and how you will dispose of different plastic alternatives.
It’s also important to understand which compostable plastic alternatives can and cannot be put out for collection in Oregon, as not all packaging and service ware can be composted in their facilities.
Oregon residents are fortunate in that the State encourages composting through the weekly collection of compostable items including compostable plastics and household scraps. They also encourage the regulation of certifications by ensuring manufacturers adhere to Vincotte and ASTM standards.
To learn more about composting in your area, contact your local waste department and understand where and how you can dispose of compostable or biodegradable plastics. If you want to reduce your environmental footprint, composting could be a great option for you.