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Breaking Down Alternatives to Single-Use Plastics for Small Business

Paper plates, paper cups, and compostable utensils.

Are you confused by the many green alternatives to single-use plastic packaging? 

You’re not alone. 

While it may feel like we are desperate to eliminate single-use plastics at any cost, other single-use alternatives come with many confounding and unfortunate trade-offs, making it difficult for business owners looking to do the right thing.

Last year, millions around the world pledged to participate in the 10-year anniversary of Plastic-Free July, a movement started by Rebecca Prince-Ruiz. Individuals who participate in the challenge commit to making small changes that reduce their environmental impact by simply refusing unnecessary single-use plastics or opting for reusables instead. Businesses are also invited to join in the efforts by eliminating single-use plastics from their supply chains and educating consumers about the importance and nuances of that change.

To remain competitive in the increasingly green market, many businesses have responded to the desires of concerned consumers, resulting in a shift away from plastics. Others have been compelled by their own food inherent values to make the switch from plastic packaging to alternatives that can be composted, recycled, or reused. Anyone else remember Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2018

“Single-use.” Google it and here’s the definition you’ll likely find: something designed to be used once and then disposed of or destroyed.

Clearly, single-use plastics are bad, but this is where it gets confusing. As companies strive to avoid single-use plastics this July (and beyond… hopefully), a variety of non-plastic (yet still single-use) alternatives have sprung up in their place.

Reuse > Single-Use, no matter how you spin it.

Let’s not forget that the convenient appeal of single-use is what got us into this mess, so it certainly isn’t another single-use option that will get us out of it — no matter how “plant-based” or “biodegradable” it may be (we’ll address those distinctions later in the blog post.).

Instead — choose to REUSE whenever possible. 

Reusables will always be the best alternative to single-use items — for the environment, for human health, and for a business’s bottom line in the long run. The National Reuse Network has great resources like the Reuse Savings Calculator, the Reuse Business Directory, and the #SkipTheStuff campaign.

However, for businesses that remain dependent on single-use packaging, making the switch from plastics to compostables can still have a major positive impact, but there is a lot to consider first. Here are a few key things to keep in mind as you explore this messy topic to determine which alternative is right for your business. 

Composting is cool.

A hand-painted sign that says "Compost Happens" nailed to a fence. There is snow on the ground.
Credit: Toni Reed on Unsplash

Does your business compost? If not, it should consider this time-honored practice. 

Regardless of which compostable material you’re considering, the benefits of composting are two-fold and they are both very worthwhile:

  1. Composting keeps organic waste out of landfills, where it would typically produce methane, a greenhouse gas even worse for us and the environment than carbon dioxide. Landfill space in many communities is dwindling, so it helps address this issue as well.
  2. Instead, composting returns that waste matter to the environment as valuable organic material that dramatically improves soil health, and this healthy soil can even sequester carbon out of the air.

Packaging can be labeled as biodegradable without necessarily being compostable.

There are many nuances when it comes to composting that must first be understood in order to truly reap the benefits of choosing a compostable single-use alternative.

Material is biodegradable if it can be broken down by microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. What the marketing on those “100% biodegradable” plastic bags and cups doesn’t tell you is that biodegradability won’t indicate how quickly the item will break down — just that it will break down… eventually… at some point… 

Oh, and only if it ends up in the right conditions.

That’s why the term compostable is preferred since it can be regulated, so look for third-party certifications (see labels below) that certify the material can be broken down and turned into compost under certain conditions and within a certain timeframe (usually under 6 months). 

To claim compostability, products and packaging should meet one of the following criteria:

Various compostable labels for packaging.

Packaging may be industrially compostable but still unable to break down in a backyard compost pile. 

Some labels explicitly state that a product or packaging can only be composted in an industrial or commercial facility while others indicate that a product or packaging is safe for home composting. Be sure to look for that distinction and pass along the information to your customers. 

Unfortunately, that raises the question: how compostable is it if it must be industrially composted and your community doesn’t have access to a facility? The answer no one wants to tell you is that it’s not.

Look for local solutions and resources.

Seek out alternative packaging solutions within your community if that’s ever an option. Use this shift as an opportunity to establish credibility and nurture consumer trust in your brand’s sustainability initiatives by being intentional and doing everything you can to avoid greenwashing

See if your area has a reusable takeout service that you can partner with like Durham’s GreenToGo (they even have reusable pizza takeout and local neighborhood delivery now) or Portland’s GO Box.

If your business uses compostable materials or has lots of organic waste, such as food, paper towels, or paper/cardboard that cannot be recycled, consider paying for a local composting service, such as Compost Crew or Compost Now

Look for one that services your community to see how it can help your business save money, reduce its carbon footprint, and divert waste from landfills. In addition to the environmental benefits composting services provide, they also monitor your waste diversion so you can communicate tangible impacts to conscious consumers.

Another option for those with sufficient funds and an adventurous spirit is vermicomposting. According to the Green Restaurant Association, Eco-restaurateur Dave Krick is the first in the continental U.S. to have worms working in the basements of his restaurants to turn kitchen waste into valuable, nutrient-rich compost, and it’s going much better than you may expect.

Educate your employees and customers about these distinctions and how to properly dispose of your packaging. 

A sign with single-use utensils glued to it as an example of what items can be composted.
Credit: Williams College, Composting

Safe to say, this is a complex and challenging topic, but we’re all in this together. 

Your customers are trying to do the right thing and so are you, so it looks like we’ve already won half the battle. Just keep asking questions and avoiding unnecessary waste as much as possible. 

Also, don’t forget to be honest about your limitations. No business is perfect and it’s a strength to show that you understand how nuanced sustainability is. Most importantly, focus on reusing—whether that means refilling a container or returning organic material to the Earth so it can regenerate the soil and draw down carbon from the atmosphere.

You got this.