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In Clark County, Compostable Food Packaging is a Waste

It sounds like an environmental triumph; the ability to turn single-use food packaging into a soil amendment, a new form of energy, or some other usable thing. Compostable packaging is taking the place of plates, cups, and to-go containers that would otherwise be made out of petroleum-based plastic or coated paper and thrown away after a single use. The reality is that in Clark County, replacing other single-use packaging with compostable packaging has the potential to create more harm than benefit. 

Compostable packaging isn't compostable
You read that right. It seems like an oxymoron but many composting facilities, including the one that receives Clark County's food scraps, do not compost compostable packaging. There are many reasons why, but one problem that composters have found is that accepting packaging labeled "compostable" or "biodegradable" opens the flood gates for all types of non-biodegradable single-use plastic that looks identical but is harmful in compost. 

To further confuse the system, many items labeled "compostable" or "biodegradable" do not break down at all, and instead act the same as the items they're attempting to replace. 

On being organic
If a compost facility decides to compost packaging, their compost cannot be used on organic farms. Certifiers such as OMRI require farmers to use fertilizers and soil amendments that have not been chemically altered. Plant-based compostable packaging and paper are chemically altered and therefore do not meet organic standards. Most composting facilities, including the local Dirt Hugger, favor producing higher quality compost that can be used for organic farming and gardening, and that means they must refuse compostable packaging.

What is the solution?
The root of the problem is that single-use products are damaging to the environment, and we crave an environmentally friendly replacement that doesn't inconvenience us. Compostable cups, plates, to-go boxes and the like seem to offer the replacement we want, but the truth is that in Clark County, we can't compost that material, and we can't recycle it either. The real solution is to produce less waste to begin with, and that means using reusable dishes, and ditching single-use disposables. Here are a couple of ideas to reduce excess waste:


  • Rather than always taking extra items such as plastic bags, cup lids, straws and utensils with takeout orders, only accept those items when you really need them.
  • Bring your own reusable container to take away leftovers from your table at a restaurant instead of asking for a to-go box.
  • Food service establishments can contact Clark County Green Business Program to assess opportunities to reduce packaging and other waste. 

Take a look at Oregon DEQ's 2018 report on food service ware for a deeper look at compostables: https://www.oregon.gov/deq/FilterDocs/compostable.pdf.
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