Composting Compostable Packaging


IN FEBRUARY 2011, FRITO-LAY INTRODUCED a revised compostable bag for their SunChips®. The new bag replaced the old compostable packaging because it made a loud crinkling sound that was annoying to Frito-lay customers. Frito-lay took the old one off the market because of the negative reaction. I haven’t seen the new one yet, but it is supposed to be quieter.

With these bags once again available to consumers, the question I’d like to explore is: Should backyard gardeners include them in their compost piles?

Do they actually break down?

There has been some controversy over whether SunChip bags actually break down in the compost. Several bloggers have tested the bags in their compost piles and found that they only break down if the pile is hot over a sustained period of time.

Frito-lay has confirmed this. Their tests show that under aerobic compost con­ditions, when the temperature was maintained above 130°F, SunChip bags broke down in about 12-16 weeks.

I don’t know about your compost pile, but mine never stays above 130 degrees for 12 weeks or more – no matter how hard I try. Maybe that’s why I have so many viable weed seeds in my compost. The temperatures required by the Frito-lay bags would be more typical of industrial composting rather than backyard composting.

The real question

But let’s assume for a minute that backyard compost piles can maintain 130°F for the required amount of time. Maybe some in warmer climates can. The next question is should we include compostable packaging in compost planned for use in edible gardens? Put another way: Just because Frito-lay says it is compostable, should we?

If you are an organic gardener, the answer is absolutely not. A key component that makes up the bags is polylactic acid (PLA), which is a  polyester (yes, polyester like in disco suits) that is actually made from crops such as corn, tapioca or sugarcane. Since these crops typically are grown using chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, my recommendation is that you don’t include SunChip bags in the compost that you feed your edible plants.

My fear is that some organic gardeners will mistake “compostable” for organic. After all, compost is closely associated with organic gardening. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to mistakenly assume that because it is “green” it is also organic.

Composting rule of thumb

When it comes to what to put into your compost pile, I use one of Michael Pollen’s Food Rules as one of my rules of thumb. He says don’t eat anything that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as being food. I say don’t put anything in your compost pile that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as coming from a plant or animal. It’s not my only composting rule, but I think it’s a good one.

If you’re not an organic gardener, I won’t give you any advice. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t recommend putting  “polyester” in your backyard compost pile. But it’s probably not any worse than some of the pesticides that people apply to their crops. It actually may be safer.

It may very well be that the new compostable packaging is a green step forward. There are less fossil fuels consumed in creating the packaging and, because it breaks down more easily than traditional plastics, it will take up less room in our landfills. But my recommendation is not to add it to your compost pile.

Let us know if you agree or disagree with my recommendation by commenting below.

Related articles that might interest you:

1. Seven Eco-friendly Ideas for the Garden

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6 Responses to “Composting Compostable Packaging”

  1. March 24, 2011 at 9:22 am #

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog. I’m so glad you found the Eat Well Guide helpful and I’m glad to find your blog too. Take care!

    Sarah

  2. March 24, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    Great post. Your rule of thumb for your own backyard composting pile is great. Of course you only want to put materials into your compost that you yourself trust. I truthfully do not think that these compostable products add any extra value to any compost pile. Their basic structures are corn or potato based materials that are just starches in their broken down states. if they are composting then the microbes are eating them. The idea of only putting materials that grandma would in your pile travels beyond the compostable product and really hits home with the big push for biosolids. Biosolids (fancy word for human waste) is a whole different controversial beast but goes back to this idea. Do not put anything in your pile that you yourself wouldn’t want to eat in the end because certain materials will get absorbs by your garden veggies. Great post.

    • March 24, 2011 at 2:39 pm #

      Cody — Thanks for visiting. I hope this conversation continues because it’s an important subject.

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