The infrastructure exists to process certified compostable bags, so what might be causing the confusion among decision-makers?
Perhaps the most common argument against allowing certified compostable bags in single-use plastic bans is that composting facilities are unable to process them. This is a widely held misconception based, at least in part, on a lack of information or a misunderstanding.
In reality, certified compostable bags are much easier to break down than many other feedstocks, such as large pieces of wood from yard waste, as well as animal byproducts like bones and meats. If a facility is truly having problems with breaking down the certified compostable bags, then it must be having problems with other organic matter as well, which is a symptom of a bigger problem. This is a good indication that the facility may be in need of upgrading to improve their processing capabilities anyways.
The other issue that facilities have is during the physical separation process before composting truly begins. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a certified compostable bag and a plastic bag; therefore, both types are often screened out and the compostable bag doesn’t get the chance to fulfill its end-of-life purpose of becoming a valuable resource. This is a valid point, especially since organic matter gets very dirty and it may not be possible to see a compost message on a compostable bag. One option that has been proposed to solve this problem is to require all compostable bag resins be a particular colour. For example, in the city of Greater Shepparton in Australia, the city government has recently started handing out free light purple kitchen bin liners for citizens to use to collect their organics. This reduces confusion about where to put the bags, encourages food waste collection, and makes it easy for composters to sort out the regular plastic from the compostable plastic. Since the rollout of the program, about 47,000 tonnes of organic waste have reportedly been diverted from landfills. This is an example of forward thinking in developing new ideas to solve problems rather than scrapping the idea entirely.
Another option is that used by Urban Canopy, a circular food system and composter in Chicago. Here, they first run everything that they receive through the composting system. Then, if anything doesn’t break down, they’ll run it through again. Only after a few rounds of composting will they screen out the materials that did not properly decompose. If this method is used, rather than screening out anything suspicious first, certified compostable bags are broken down and only the true plastic bags are removed.
However, the most important thing to keep in mind with this potential issue is that, once plastic bags are banned and gone, there is nothing to confuse the certified compostable bags with. If citizens do not have access to the problematic plastic bags in question, there should be no concerns about them ending up in compost by mistake. This is one of the beautiful things about the ban and yet another side benefit of removing single-use plastics from the waste stream without removing certified compostable bags with them.
Importantly, since this topic centres around Canadian legislation and the legislation of the provinces and territories within Canada, it is necessary to point out that there are actually plenty of composting facilities within Canada that do accept certified compostable bags. Many of these facilities are even in regions where certified compostable bags are either being considered for a ban or have been banned already. A few examples include Revolution Organics, which services the entire Lower Mainland in B.C., ADI International in P.E.I, and Matrec (merged with GFL) located in Montreal. All of these facilities help to encourage organics collection and diversion of organic waste away from landfills by allowing their residents to use certified compostable bags.
These are only a very small portion of the many facilities throughout the country that accept these bags and are able to process them without issue, indicating that the technology and infrastructure exists but that many people may simply be misinformed about its existence.
In the facilities where certified compostable bags are currently not accepted, there is an opportunity for expansion and upgrading of composting infrastructure so that these places can accept, not only certified compostable bags, but the other materials like meats, bones and dense yard waste like wood that they must not be able to process either. In some facilities, the solution to that struggle with such materials can be as simple as to run the large deposits of debris through and process it again. This is exactly what Urban Canopy does in Chicago, according to Alex Poltorack, Distribution and Operations Lead. Where that is not an option, facility upgrades are necessary. This demonstrates the need for government investment in waste management infrastructure, specifically in the area of organics processing, an investment that contributes hugely to reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, creates valuable jobs, and creates a circular economy.
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