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Faced with an ever-mounting plastic pollution problem—there are now 21,000 pieces of plastic in the ocean for every person—a plastic that turns into dirt might sound like the answer we’ve all been waiting for. But like most sustainability issues, it’s complicated.
Despite broader public awareness of plastic’s impact on human health and the environment, the global economy is producing more single-use plastic than ever, according to a 2023 report from nonprofit Minderoo Foundation. And if there’s one thing that experts can agree on, it’s that plastic pollution is a problem that requires many solutions.
Commercially compostable bioplastic is one piece of the puzzle touted by brands like disposable home goods company Repurpose, disposable cocktail cup maker Tossware and food service packaging company Eco-Products. And while they offer a convenient, attractive alternative to petroleum-based plastic, only 11% of Americans have access to the kind of composting facilities necessary to handle those products—meaning that most end up in landfill. Some environmental groups argue that biobased plastic in landfill and the environment is no better than traditional plastic.
As regulations around environmental claims begin to tighten, clear messaging is critical to avoid consumer confusion—and potential legal consequences.
“There’s this giant gap between what’s theoretically possible and what can actually be recycled at this moment,” said Jeffrey Greenbaum, managing partner at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz PC and global chairman of the Global Advertising Lawyers Alliance. “We want, as a society, companies to be developing products that are biodegradable and recyclable and compostable and have all these environmental benefits. The problem is that we don’t have an infrastructure in place that can necessarily accomplish all of the things.”
The sustainability of disposability
The idea behind Repurpose was born on a movie set more than a decade ago. Lauren Gropper, who holds a master’s degree in sustainable design and architecture, was building eco-friendly TV and film sets in Los Angeles.
“We would build these very green sets and then eat our salads out of a plastic bowl with a plastic fork, plastic water bottle,” said Gropper, founder and CEO of Repurpose. “To me, it made no sense at all that we’re using petroleum—which is a finite resource—digging it out of the ground to make a product that is actually designed to throw away, but with a material that is meant to last forever. And it’s toxic.”
Founded in 2011, the challenge was finding a material that performed as well as plastic but didn’t have the same toxicity, climate-harming source material, or end-of-life.
Gropper landed on molded fiber from sugarcane and post-industrial recycled pulp for the plates and bowls; polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) from canola seed oil for the straws, which Repurpose says are marine degradable; polylactic acids (PLA) from corn, cassava and beet pulp residue for the cutlery and cups, which require commercial composting facilities to break down; and bamboo fiber for the toilet paper and paper towels. The products are available at retailers like Target and Walmart and grocery stores nationwide.
“The last five years have really been amazing for us, the tailwinds have been in our favor and there’s much more legislation around anti-polystyrene, there’s legislation around [per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS] in products,” Gropper said, referring to harmful “forever chemicals” often used as a moisture barrier in other molded fiber bowls and takeout containers, but not used in Repurpose products. “We’ve always been ahead of the curve on non-toxic, sustainability and compostability.”
But… bioplastic is still plastic
It’s hard to get past the reality that only about one in 10 Americans have access to industrial composting facilities—and that compostable bioplastics are available all across the country regardless of what facilities are available.
“If you’re making a claim about something that can’t be done in your market, then you shouldn’t be making the claim,” said Noam Freshman, director of impact and sustainable solutions at climate-focused agency Futerra. “Even the suggestion that something is more sustainable, or that it’s compostable, or that you can put it in your backyard [compost pile] is a false narrative, and it’s creating even more confusion.”
Environmental group Beyond Plastics, which advocates for plastic alternatives and a return to reusables instead of single-use plastics, pushes back on the idea that bioplastics can solve the problems created by the plastics industry.
“Bioplastics tend to be another false solution to the plastic pollution crisis,” said Melissa Valliant, communications director at Beyond Plastics. “‘Compostable plastic [products] … end up in the same trash can as the rest of the day’s waste, inevitably ending up in a landfill, an incinerator, or the environment where their end-of-life process is identical to that of their regular plastic counterparts.”
And while brands say that compostable bioplastics can turn into dirt to feed soils, that’s not exactly how it works, said Megan Wolff, policy director at Beyond Plastics.
“Compost derived from these manufactured products will contain all the chemicals present in the products, and a far lower nutritional content than real compost,” Wolff explained. “From a soil health perspective, it is at best empty calories.”