Compostable packaging is coming to the produce industry – Produce Blue Book

Short quiz: what is the difference between “biodegradable” and “compostable”?

“Biodegradable” means that an item will degrade into natural components, eventually. Technically, aluminum cans, polystyrene cups, and plastic bags are biodegradable, except cans take 80-100 years and polystyrene and plastic take over 500 years. This is why no one considers them to be biodegradable in the generally accepted sense of the word. It’s a completely different scale than for vegetables (5 days to a month), paper (2-5 months) or a cotton T-shirt (6 months).

“Compostable” refers to a product that will biodegrade under specific human-controlled conditions. The simplest example is the garden compost heap. You take out your fruit and vegetable scraps, toss them on the pile and turn them over occasionally with a shovel to speed up degradation. Products that you can compost in this way are called “home compostable”.

There is also commercial composting, which uses shredders and grinders to break down waste, and which requires specific composting in terms of humidity, temperature and oxygen.

In most cases, biodegradable plastics are not suitable for residential composting. They require the more complex industrial process to break down.

All of this is increasingly relevant to the produce industry as products appear with home compostable packaging. Recently, a compostable label for bananas was released to comply with French regulations that came into force at the beginning of this year.

Now, New York-based grower distributor Jac Vandenberg Inc. BB #: 103960 is launching a home compostable plastic bag for its Sunrays product line. The bags are made from 20% bio-based plastic and 80% compostable polymers. The company claims these bags will decompose in six months in an active compost pile.

“We are confident that these bags will help retailers achieve their goals around zero waste, plastic reduction and overall sustainability,” says Jack Papp, brand manager at Jac Vandenberg.

It’s all well and good if you have a compost pile, but what if your apartment on the 18th floor of a big city skyscraper doesn’t allow you to keep one?

Then it gets complicated. Because then that compostable bag, like regular plastic bags, probably ends up in landfill, and there’s some disagreement about how and even if compostable materials will break down differently there. It’s also not clear if, when they decompose, they release methane, a greenhouse gas about 30 times more potent than the infamous CO2.

Current innovations, such as home compostable materials, are of course laudable efforts to address the monumental problem of packaging waste. But I have a strong feeling that these are just rough first attempts at the technology that will be needed to eventually solve it.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; it’s just part of the process, unless you’re eager for faster solutions.

Lucas E. Kelly