Have You Been Green Washed? Breaking Down Biodegradable & Compostable Plastics

Written by Hallie Brennan, UPCYCLE SANTA FE | FEBRUARY 2019

You’ve probably heard the term ‘green washed’ by now, and have likely witnessed it firsthand.  There isn’t enough bad-mouthing to be said about this marketing pandemic, as it gaslights sustainability efforts when Earth needs our care most.  For those of you who haven’t heard of green washing, let’s start with a simple definition.  Aka ‘green sheen’, green washing is a marketing strategy to deceive you, the consumer, in thinking a company, venue, or restaurant is green, but when examined just a little closer the company is in fact harming the environment.  As a result, the consumer gets duped into spending their hard earned cash on an undeserving fake green company.

Have you ordered a to-go coffee drink lately and noticed your cup has a little green leaf stamped on it?  Maybe the words biodegradeable or compostable are also written on the cup, and you say to yourself, ‘What a wonderful world!’ then finish the drink and toss the cup in the trash, because that’s where it’ll just biodegrade or something.  If this sounds familiar you’ve been green washed.

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Ask if the restaurant is participating in a commercial compost program.  If they’re not, you’ve been green washed.

As inundated as we are with single-use plastics, many people are hoping for more Greenified single-use items.  (Hint: Doesn’t that sound like an oxymoron?)  Most of these newly developed “green” single-use plastics are only green if you dispose of them properly.  I hope you find this as interesting as I do because I am about to launch right in…

Biodegradable and compostable plastics are turning up everywhere.  There are huge differences between the two.  Biodegradable plastics are usually just basic plastic products which have microorganisms added to help break down the plastic way faster.  The idea is the plastic will deteriorate in a few years rather than a few hundred years.  This seems like a legitimate fix to plastics building up on the planet, right?  Here’s the catch… when biodegradable plastics break down toxic residue is often left behind because the material is still just plastic.  Additionally, when those plastics do break down they don’t just disappear.  They become micro-plastics, and those are extremely harmful to ecosystems.  Micro-plastics are practically invisible which makes them nearly impossible to clean up, and they eventually end up in the bellies of wildlife and humans.  Lets also not forget the grandfather of the plastic problem is Big Oil.  Plastic is a petroleum based product; biodegradable plastic is, too.  They’re still drilling oil so that single-use fork can feed you.  Plastics degrade alright, but there’s nothing bio, or biological, about it.  It’s an unnatural object with an unnatural degradation process, and mass producing these biodegradable plastics isn’t getting to the root of the plastic pollution issue.

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Not a plastic cup, but we still need to dispose of it with attentive care.


Compostable products are made of natural plant starch, like corn or tapioca.  Compostable products break down in a composting system when done so correctly.  If you throw your compostable items in the trash and are thinking, ‘Yay!  It’ll just break down in the landfill…” you’re missing a big part of the picture.  To organically compost an item you need oxygen, or an aerobic environment.  Landfills are anaerobic environments, which means there is no oxygen to break down the compostable material.  This is why proper compost piles have to be turned and hydrated.  When compostables (food waste included) end up in landfills they break down alright, but release methane gas in the years-long process.  The gas is sourced from the landfill and burned, which is a direct green house gas.  Methane gas is 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat within our atmosphere.

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Methane gas burning at a landfill, directly contributing to green house gas emissions.

Compostable plastics means you’ve got to actually compost the plastic.  Have you ever thrown a compostable fork in your compost pile, then when you turn the pile months later you find the fork is intact and hasn’t started to break down whatsoever?  I have learned my lesson this way, as well.  Part two of compostable plastics is the need for commercial composting.  It’s a bit different than backyard composting.  Because the compostable plastic is still just plastic, it is not going to break down as quickly and easily as a banana peel.  Compostable plastics need to be managed in a controlled environment where microbes are being fed at just the right amount, and at just the right temperature, with just the right amount of water and nitrogen, in order to break down.  Who can possibly pull all that off?  Commercial composting facilities.

Compostable plastics in your backyard compost will take over a year to break down, and leave plastic bits behind, contaminating your soil.  If the item is tossed in the recycle bin it’s considered a contaminate and goes to the landfill, because it’s not 100% polyethylene like recyclable plastics.  In the landfill, compostable plastics take years to break down and eventually turn into methane gas.  Here’s the green wash; people perceive compostable plastic as a sustainable option without being informed to the importance of properly composting the item once finished with it.  When faced with limited composting facilities to responsibly handle the item it can turn out just as bad as regular old plastic.

Solutions do exist for compostable plastics, but you’ve likely got to do a little work.  If compost collection isn’t offered by your city’s waste management program, or by the venue that’s served you a compostable plastic item, consumers must take the lead.  Upcycle Santa Fe is located in northern New Mexico and can recommend Soilutions in Albuquerque and Reunity Resources in Santa Fe to responsibly handle your compostable waste.  (If you’re not composting your food waste at home, we cannot emphasize enough how important it is to not throw your food waste into the landfill.  Commercial composters can really help you out, here!)  A quick online search can help you find a certified commercial composting facility in your hometown.  If you’re an Ecobricker, or are able to make Ubuntu-Blox, biodegradable and compostable plastics can be used in both methods.  This is because neither Ecobricks or Ubuntu-Blox offer the right environment for such plastics to break down.

Biodegradable and compostable plastics can be stuffed into your Ecobrick

When it comes down to it, sustainable, green, and single-use aren’t usually found in the same family tree.  Green leaves or happy trees on packaging gives consumers’ quick-to-judge eye the impression a product is a sustainable choice.  The importance of bringing your own to-go coffee mug to the cafe, or reusing utensils for parties or car camping, are far more sustainable options.  Though innovative single-use items keep popping up on store shelves, the method of ‘bring your own’ and reuse still reigns.  Using anything once and throwing it away is the opposite of what sustainability teaches us.

As consumers we are a leading cause of climate change.  Yes, we may accurately place quite a bit of blame on corporations polluting ecosystems and destroying simple ways of life around the world, but we must remember corporations serve a very large, very powerful group.  A group which has an incredible impact on global economics, politics, government policy, and the overall planet: consumers.  If we want to change the dirty ways of corporations we must change our dirty ways of consuming, as well.  If we cannot see we are part of the problem we cannot fix the problem.  The responsibility of cleaning up the planet is in all of our hands.  We may sit and wait for corporations to do their part, or we may go ahead and get a head start.  Being informed to green washing tactics makes us better consumers because it challenges irresponsible corporations and keeps the sustainability movement in line.


Refuse, reduce, reuse, refill, recycle.


One thought on “Have You Been Green Washed? Breaking Down Biodegradable & Compostable Plastics

  1. tinycaravan

    Yes, yes yes! Thank you for bringing up this issue about greenwashing and compostable/biodegradable products. It’s unfortunate that most people have good intentions, but are not educated about the unintended consequences of these types of products. We agree that the best way to combat this is to change the way we consume and utilize the 5R’s in the correct order.

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