Plastic Pollution
December 20 2019

Plastic is Plastic – Don’t be Fooled by Compostability Claims

by Gretchen Gary, Surfrider San Diego OFR Volunteer

Plastic pollution is one of the greatest environmental threats of our time. The mass production of single-use containers, wrappers, sachets, utensils, and disposable tableware over the last six decades has inundated waste management infrastructure worldwide and led to unprecedented pollution. It is now estimated that 8.75 million metric tons of plastic enter our ocean each year from land-based sources, with a great majority of that waste generated in the consumption of food and beverages. According to the UN Environment Report, only 9% of all plastics ever created have been recycled with most still existing in its original form, whether buried in a landfill where it will take centuries to break down or littered in our natural environment, waterways, and ocean. To address the urgency of this plastic pollution epidemic, the Surfrider Foundation seeks to cut off the waste at the source with Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Restaurants program.

“Recycling alone will not get us out of this mess,” says Vicki Conlon, lead for the Surfrider San Diego Chapter’s Ocean Friendly Restaurants Program. “The rate at which plastic is entering our ocean is too great to ignore and we need action from businesses, consumers and governments to address the crisis. In addition to Surfrider’s push for increased regulation on single-use plastic, we are making an immediate difference in communities across the country with the Ocean Friendly Restaurants program but we face many challenges, including new claims from manufacturers on the benefits of supposedly ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘compostable’ plastics.”

To meet the demand for alternatives, some companies have introduced what they claim to be a solution to the plastic pollution crisis - plant-based or bio-plastics - that are often labeled as biodegradable or compostable. With a variety of “green” plastic alternatives, restaurants and consumers alike are buying into the concept that we can still maintain our single-use wastefulness as long as disposable products are made of plant-based starches like sugar or corn rather than petroleum. However, claims that the products are compostable are completely lost on the fact that these plastics require a commercial composting facility to break down, and very few communities actually have access to one to serve their waste management needs. Oregon composters put this notice together explaining why they do not accept "compostable" packaging and serviceware. Regardless of whether there are facilities available to accommodate bioplastics, these plastics will not degrade in the ocean, thus offering no improvement to conventional plastic if the waste ends up littered on the beach or dropped into waterways and washed out to sea. 

“Surfrider does not advocate for compostable plastics,” Vicki Conlon explains. “Since many cities, including San Diego, do not have commercial composting facilities, we do not recommend them to our Ocean Friendly Restaurnts.  All compostable plastic waste goes straight to landfill in San Diego County, which is sadly ironic as most people think they are doing a good thing by buying compostable plastic products to use in their restaurants. It is essentially greenwashing and it’s unfortunately very widespread.”

The best solution to our plastic pollution crisis is the source reduction of single-use plastics and the shift to reusable items in food and drink service. The single-use mindset in delivering and consuming food and beverages needs to be replaced with more sustainable practices. By registering to be a Surfrider Ocean Friendly Restaurant, restaurants can take serious action in mitigating their contribution to plastic pollution and help inspire customers to do the same. The program not only helps to eliminate plastic waste but also helps restaurants to save money with vendor discounts and guidelines to better manage supply chains, which can greatly reduce the expense of disposable items.

Visit our Beachapedia page for more information about bioplastics and the environmental threat of compostable plastics. Contact OFR@surfrider.org with questions or to join the Ocean Friendly Restaurants program!