As plastic pollution becomes more and more visible to consumers and everyday citizens, cities, states and countries have been enacting plastic bans. As we begin to recognize the problems caused by traditional, petroleum-based single-use products, we have started searching for viable solutions. One such solution was to simply ban products made from those materials. And while this is a great idea in practice, the umbrella-like nature of these types of bans tends to ban the solution as well as the problem. Many single-use plastics bans also cover products made from compostable bioplastic materials, especially when it comes to drinking straws. Plastic straws are an easy item to simply ban and get rid of, or look to replace with less-than-useful and less-than-enjoyable alternatives like paper or hay. But the reality of the situation is we need a solution that satisfies customers and the planet, and right now bans are preventing that solution from coming to fruition.
So why are some plastics bans covering compostables? They are plastics bans, aren’t they? Well originally, these bans were written before bioplastics were well-established and the resources and knowledge just weren’t there to inform legislators that this wasn’t something that should be included in bans. Odds are, lawmakers were trying to get bio-based materials that are in no way compostable or biodegradable banned, and in the process covered compostables as well. Many states also want to eliminate as many opportunities for greenwashing as possible, so by covering all bioplastics, they no longer have to be concerned with what’s greenwashed and what’s actually planet-friendly. But the biggest reason bioplastics are covered in plastic bans is because of industrially compostable bioplastics. When most of these bans were written, PLA (polylactic acid) was the only well-known and widely-utilized bioplastic. PLA products have to be transported to compost facilities that can properly compost them to get their environmental benefits; they have no benefits if they end up in landfills. Because many communities did not have these types of composters, it simply became easier to ban PLA rather than sort it out of the recycling stream.
So what language should you look for in your local legislation to determine if it covers compostable bioplastics? Well, phrases like “biologically-based polymer” (City of Miami Beach, FL) or “biologically-based source (such as corn or other plants)” (City of Deerfield Beach, FL) are both phrases used to target PLA and other industrially compostable materials directly, as they are made from cornstarch or sugarcane bases. Some bans call out PLA directly, like Los Angeles: “any straws made from a bioplastic/compostable/polylactic acid (PLA).” Others just make sure to cover all “compostable and biodegradable petroleum or biologically-based polymer straws” (State of Washington) with a cover-all phrase. While these bans are all very well-intentioned, they need revisions to allow certified compostable materials and products to help bring about the solution to the single-use plastics problem.
We’re not against single-use plastics bans. We actually want to encourage more states, cities, and the federal government to implement more bans on products made from traditional, petroleum-based materials. However, we want to make sure that the new bans coming into play keep compostable bioplastics OUT of their coverage, and that the ordinances currently in place that do include bioplastics consider a revision. A great example is the City of Charleston, SC’s plastic straw ordinance and styrofoam ban; they ban materials and products based on ASTM test standards D6400 and D6868, as well as BPI certification for industrial compostability. Bans like this that are based on scientific compostability test standards and certifications are the best of their kind, because they eliminate greenwashing, and promote the use of compostable alternatives to traditional plastics. So let’s take a page from Charleston’s book and get our plastics bans on the right page…the compostable page.