PEI·Waves of Change

Compostable containers confusing for consumers, says Island Waste Management

P.E.I. restaurants that have switched to all compostable packaging may have good intentions but they're making things challenging for Island Waste Management Corporation.

'They're surprised that it can look and feel like a plastic cup and still be compostable'

Gerry Moore holds two plastic containers. The one on the left is recyclable, the one on the right is compostable. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Waves of Change is a CBC series exploring the single-use plastic we're discarding, and why we need to clean up our act. You can be part of the community discussion by joining our Facebook group.

P.E.I. restaurants that have switched to all compostable packaging may have good intentions but they're making things challenging for the Island Waste Management Corporation (IWMC).

"That's a double-edged sword," said Gerry Moore, CEO for IWMC.

"It's very difficult for most people, it's difficult for myself who is educated in these materials to identify them because the products that are compostable are very hard to distinguish from regular plastic."

This compostable cutlery still looks a lot like plastic, says Gerry Moore of IWMC. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Moore says drivers for IWMC can find the plant-based plastics confusing.

"If he opened the lid and saw a lot of what he thought were plastic items, he may actually reject the load not knowing that the items that were in there were compostable," Moore said.

"This is what makes it very confusing for the general public."

All of this packaging is compostable. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Not meant for recycling

Moore says the plant-based plastics can also cause issues when they're put in the blue bag for recycling.

"We actually have seen some compostable materials that end up in the recycling stream when really they shouldn't and then that generates more waste on that side," Moore said. 

Moore says the compostable plastic can be confusing when it ends up here at the compost facility. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Too many compostable materials in recycling bins also lead to entire loads of recyclables being rejected by purchasers.

"We don't want to see those compostable materials going into the recycling stream," Moore said.

"When you get two glasses one made with plastic and one with a plant-based material you can't really tell the difference."

Make them identifiable

Moore has a potential solution.

"My personal view is that materials that are compostable really need to be colour-coded or distinguished in some unique manner to clearly identify them as compostable as opposed to a recyclable or a waste item," Moore said. 

"Any manufacturers of these items that are compostable and not disposable plastic should distinguish them more than trying to look exactly like the plastic product." 

Even though this cup is labelled, Gerry Moore of IWMC would like to see compostable products be easier to distinguish from plastic. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Moore says it's going to take a concerted effort by everyone to make the move to compostable packaging work.

"I think it's an evolution that has to occur here over the next couple of years," Moore said. 

"Industries need to get together to make it easier for consumers and operators such as Island Waste Management to clearly identify what items are made from what materials and that certainly will make everyone's life a lot easier."

'Very little waste'

Sharie and Robi Hughes switched to compostable cups and straws at their Charlottetown business, Juice Co, in 2008.

But they switched back to plastic straws a few years later because the compostable straws weren't working properly for the smoothies.

Now they deal with a company that makes products from leftover stalks from vegetables, including corn, and plant fibre.

Sharie Hughes says she's seeing more restaurants making the switch to compostable packaging even though it is more expensive. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

 "We've switched our waste bucket to a little basket and we have our big compost leaf bags as our compost bins now," Sharie said.

"We compost a lot and recycle a lot and very little waste."

Hughes says they now produce very little waste at Juice Co. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Hughes says customers are often surprised to hear they can compost everything, including the cutlery.

"At first they don't believe us. They kind of look at us, second guess the garbage can thing, especially tourists tend not to understand," Hughes said.

"But once we explain to them ... they're quite happy. They're surprised that it can look and feel like a plastic cup and still be compostable."

More expensive

Hughes was interested to hear the concerns from Island Waste Management.

"I can totally see how that would happen," Hughes said.

"It would be lovely if the company itself had some kind of sign or colour or something to show that it was indeed safe to be composted."

Juice Co now uses all compostable packaging purchased from a company called World Centric.

Hughes says she's seeing more restaurants making the switch to compostable packaging even though it is more expensive.

"I think it's sourcing it out and seeing where they can get it with their price points," Hughes said. 

"It is an issue but we all have to do it and hopefully if we all demand it, the price will go lower."

These straws are compostable. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

She says consumers also have a role to play.

"The more we do, the more customers will ask for it and question the ones who are using Styrofoam or other plastics," Hughes said.

"It is quite expensive but I think our customers appreciate it so I think it's well worth it."

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About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca