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What Does It Mean for a Product to Be Compostable?

Not all compostable products are created equal. Here's what compostable means and the difference between commercially and home compostable.

Written by
Briana Dodson

You've probably spotted the word "compostable" on a product's packaging during your weekly shopping trips. That can leave you with numerous questions, like will it break down in my kitchen countertop bin? And what does compostable even mean?

In this article, you'll learn everything you need to know about the reality of these "compostable" products—including what's required for them to be composted in the first place. You'll also quickly learn not all compostable products are created equal, and the disposal process can get pretty complicated.

What Does 'Compostable' Mean?

By definition, "compostable" refers to the capability of a product to break down into a natural element, or that the item will turn to nutrient-rich soil within a specific timeline. Because it's broken down into its natural elements, it doesn't cause harm to the environment. The breakdown process typically takes 90 days, but can vary based on which objects are being composted.

When you think of something being compostable, you probably think of food scraps. But you can compost a variety of household materials, like pet hair, coffee filters, and nail clippings. Certain products also claim to be compostable: According to the US Composting Council, a compostable product is "any product specifically manufactured to break down in a compost system at the end of its useful life. It may be made from plastic, paper, or plant fibers, along with other ingredients that provide necessary form and functionality."

But the reality is composting "compostable" products is much easier said than done. Oftentimes, they require a very specific environment in order to properly break down; it's not always as simple as putting it in your compost bin with other compostable items.

'Compostable'... But Not Really

As we mentioned before, for something to truly be compostable, it has to be able to break back down to its natural state. Unfortunately, a product's "natural state" is unclear in most cases, which makes it hard to regulate.

Misleading advertising in the eco-friendly field—aka greenwashing—takes advantage of the fact that it’s super easy for companies to just stick the word “compostable” on something because many of those materials are technically compostable under the right conditions. But that’s where things can get tricky.

While some companies' "compostable" products will break down eventually, the claim is misleading. That process can sometimes take decades, if not hundreds of years, and often requires certain circumstances in order for that to happen.

How Something Actually Composts

When you see the word "compostable" on products in the store, you're oftentimes looking at a commercially compostable product. This means that the product is sent to a commercial compost facility—a place where the perfect balance of heat, moisture, and oxygen is created to break down organic and plant-based materials. This is the only way that those products can be broken down in a timely manner.

In a home composter, fruit and vegetables can break down easily. But your home bin won't get hot enough to break down compostable plastic, like bioplastics. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says unless the label indicates the product is okay for home composting, composting at home work work. If you put them in your at-home composter, they'll just sit there—they won't actually break down.

The Takeaway

Compostable products can be confusing. And the fact that there's a lack of education and information around composting doesn't help.

Commercial composting also needs to be just as accessible as curbside recycling. According to one report, only 326 out of 19,000 municipalities offer compost collection beyond yard waste pickup. That makes it hard for many store-bought "compostable" items to actually be composted.

Until the day comes when you can put your compost bin on the curb every week, do your own research before making a purchase. Look into the company's compostable claims and make sure you know the best way to dispose of it if you bring it home. Many companies do take the time to make home-compostable options. Seed, for instance, uses a home-compostable, bio-based pouch made from cornstarch.

You can also look for compostable products that are Certified Compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). These products have undergone rigorous testing standards for composting. Better yet, you can use BPI's search tool to find certified options in seconds.

"The BPI Certification Mark helps consumers to identify and trust that an item is compostable and can be diverted with food scraps where programs exist," reads the website. "Composters are able to identify and trust that certified products mixed with food scraps and yard trimmings will break down during the regular composting process and will not negatively impact compost quality."

By being a little more thoughtful before your next purchase, you could be keeping more waste out of landfills. Being a conscious consumer isn't always easy, but it is always worth it.

Reporting credit: Asha Swann