Environmental Defence’s “Wall of Shame” – The truth about compostable coffee pods

This letter is being written in response to the Environmental Defence’s “Wall of Shame” that specifically targeted Loblaws due to their sale of President’s Choice compostable coffee pods.

Specifically, I would like to address comments that suggest compostable pods cannot be composted at commercial composting facilities, and that they subsequently end up in landfill. This statement is both factually inaccurate and fails to recognize the viability of compostable plant-based plastics when managed as part of the organics stream.

Over the past two years, York University’s “Waste Wiki” research team has sought to better understand the role that compostable packaging can play in promoting a circular system, particular as a potential alternative to other single use plastic products from fossil fuel sources. Certified compostable products, comprised primarily of organic materials such as coffee chaff and polylactic acid, can be – and are being – composted at facilities across North America. While early generations of compostable products had difficulty being processed at composting facilities, improvements in both the design and technology to manage compostable materials has made composting plant-based plastics easier than ever before.

As an example, the certified compostable coffee pod used by President’s Choice has been tested in a range of facilities, representing multiple infrastructural configurations and environmental conditions. More than a dozen pilot tests have been conducted to date to gauge how readily compostable pods can break down in a commercial composting facility. In every single instance, the compostable pod successfully broke down to levels that met or exceeded municipal benchmarks used for all other materials being processes – often better than certain food waste items that are officially welcomed like fruit pits and citrus peels.

Environmental Defence’s claim that if a city does not accept a particular material as part of their Green Bin program, it must be “non-compostable”, is a misrepresentation of how material is actually managed within the system. Irrespective of whether a municipality formally designates a material as being part of the green bin, its compostability refers to whether that material can successfully break down at a commercial composting site. In the case of compostable coffee pods, that answer is an unequivocal yes – the used compostable pods that people put in their Green Bins will break down into finished compost in line with the standards for other food waste items.

My experience says that municipalities have been reticent to include plant-based plastics as part of their Green Bin program largely due to three factors:

1) The proliferation of plant-based plastics is a relatively recent phenomenon, particularly as an alternative to plastic packaging. As such, existing municipal rules surrounding what constitutes an accepted material may be dated;

2) There is a concern that facilities will pre-screen compostable items that look much like conventional plastic packaging that is not designed to break down into compost; and

3) Consumers may not be able to readily differentiate between plastic packaging and compostable bio-plastics, creating a risk of people putting the incorrect material in the wrong bin (i.e. a plastic pod in the Green Bin, or a compostable pod in the Blue Bin).

While the latter two points are definitely a potential concern, both can be addressed by better educating both facility operators and households with respect to how to properly distinguish between plastic pods and compostable pods. The obstacles for including compostable pods as part of the Green Bin program are neither technical, nor infrastructural – if a pod enters a composting facility, it will break down like any other organic product. The challenge is how do we overcome the behavioral barriers that keep compostables out of the green bin? The answer is simple, educating the public about what is fact and what is fiction regarding compostable pods will clear up misconceptions and combat the false narrative of compostable pods going to landfills.

While I think Environmental Defence’s heart is the right place, we must remember that our recommendations should be rooted in evidence and data, and not dictated by emotional narratives or political agendas. In this case, accusations of greenwashing are fundamentally untrue, and they unfairly vilify a product that has numerous economic and environmental benefits when compared to the conventional plastic alternative.