02/22/20 - Recycling vs. Composting Mystery Quest

Tags Composting Recycling


I recently discovered the EPA has a Food Recovery Heirarchy, an inverted pyramid of the priority for food waste management. At the top is reduce, on down to composting, and finally landfills. I wondered if they had something similar for disposal of other materials. I didn’t find one, but I think most people agree the pyramid for recycling is something like:

Generally the only place where I have an intersection is paper products (napkins, towels, plates) that cannot be recycled because of food or oil contaminants. When I got back into baking I discovered some brands make a compostable version (Reynold’s parchment paper, for instance) and decided it was worth looking up to see which ones I can actually try composting.

I discovered that some things I assumed were compostable, like tea bags, paper tea packets, and sweetener packets, may have plastic in them, which is awesome how great thank you everyone! Can tea bags be composted? is just one example of people spinning their wheels on this subject. I already have plenty of tea bags in the pile, so I’m going to wait and see what breaks down and what doesn’t. I don’t really understand why a product so simple requires plastic binding and other things, but whatever. I learned there is a difference between poly-coated and wax-coated, the latter is compostable the former is not.

How2Recycle logo

Some products use the how2recycle standardized labels that explain how various components can be recycled, at least 200 brands are members in the program. Exploring the website I figured out certain types of plastic packaging can be recycled at the local Publix. Since I’m me, I went on a bizarre packaging scavenger hunt and I found that Publix, somewhat ironically, actually doesn’t use this labelling too often on their store-brand items but Wal-Mart uses it for some their Great Value products. The Great Value rices, for example, were all in basic plastic bags that are eligible for store recycling. Great Value resealable bags (“plastic pouches”) are not recyclable (they usually contain bulk nuts and dry goods, for instance) and the “mixed plastic” chip bags were marked as not recyclable. Interestingly, not all products were marked (small corn tortilla chips weren’t marked, but larger bag of similar chili corn tortilla chips was marked). I suspect if a product is not recyclable the label is often omitted entirely.

The also have a How2Compost label program that is comparatively new, I am not sure I have seen one of these labels on a product yet.

Dixie Everyday Plate Quest: The Secrets of Soak-Proof Shield Coating

I have also learned that there are Federal guidelines regarding the use of terms like “biodegradable” and “compostable,” and some companies are very specific about how they use these terms as a result. I use Dixie Everday plates when hosting, they have a “soak-proof shield” coating. I emailed the manufacturer and they said it is an acrylic-based coating, and I later found some more information on that coating on Toxic-Free Future’s PFAS-coating fact sheet.

There is some confusion as to whether the Soak-Proof Shield coating is suitable for home composting. Dixie’s official position is the plates can be composted in a “commercial composting facility,” and they say the plates are biodegradable “when used in a compost operation” but they cannot make that claim of plates disposed of in a landfill. That suggests to me they aren’t allowed to claim the plates are biodegradable in home composting. A reviewer mentioned that Consumer Reports confirmed Dixie plates are technically home-compostable. I was able to track that magazine article down (yaaay internet). Consumer Reports indicates Dixie Ultra plates eventually broke down provides some info on a few other plates they composted, Hefty Basics and Chinet Classic White. That being said, How2Recycle recently downgraded PFAS product recycling labels on the grounds they are “forever chemicals” that do not break down over time.

"Packaging that contains PFAS will now be assigned the Not Yet Recycled How2Recycle label. How2Recycle will label any packaging that contains intentionally added per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, as Not Yet Recycled. There are thousands of synthetic compounds classified as PFAS that are used to make products and packages, such as paper, water and oil resistant. Some PFAS are known to have adverse human health effects, including high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, and preeclampsia. While some PFAS are approved for use in food-contact packaging by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (U.S. FDA) and Health Canada, PFAS are ‘forever chemicals,’ meaning they do not break down over time. How2Recycle created this rule to avoid the intentional contribution of hazardous forever chemicals to the recycled material stream in the US and Canada. Examples of packages that may be impacted by this new rule include paper bowls, plates, and cups, fast food containers, take-out containers, bakery and deli paper, microwavable popcorn bags, frozen meal trays."

I host a houseful of kids every other weekend so I’m not ready to give up disposable tableware, and I don’t know that I necessarily want to take on attempting to compost a huge pile of kid-food plates, but I know now I need to buy different plates if I want the option.

Then there’s iffy stuff, like used tissues, dryer lint, and so on. I think if you were very serious about not putting these in landfills you could have an isolated compost area that was specifically for breaking down dodgy materials and not for planting.

TLDR; I think important watchwords are “home composting” and How2Recycle labels. Products that indicate they can be composted at home, and not in a composting facility, are appropriate. I am just annoyed I can’t compost everything that seems like it ought to be compostable. So many products have some level of weird plastic in them.