Compostable Poop Bags Are Full of It
Gasp! “Compostable” poops bags are bad for the environment? Sustainability expert Dave Coast gets the scoop from CompostableLA founder Monique Figueiredo.
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Is there anyone more of a nuisance to society than a someone who doesn’t clean up after their dog — leaving their pet’s poop lingering on the sidewalk, awaiting an eventual meeting with some poor dude’s vintage Chuck Taylors? While this act (or lack thereof) is likely deliberate, even us good Samaritan dog walkers are capable of waste-related damage — albeit unintentionally. When scooping up your dog’s latest work in a poop bag before tossing it in a nearby can, you may not be ruining any local’s sneaker game, but you are inadvertently harming the environment.
The harsh truth is that most of those bags are made of plastic and will take hundreds of years to decompose, therefore flooding landfills and creating air pollution. Of course, you already knew that, so you bought compostable poop bags. The harsher truth is that even waste solutions promoted as biodegradable or compostable are rarely that. They’re generally derived from bioplastics — a plastic made from biological materials, such as plants and fibers — which take just as long to decompose, creating the same issues.
To make sense of this muddied field and what help is available, I spoke with Monique Figueiredo, founder of CompostableLA, who offer a compost pick-up service to many LA neighborhoods. Figueiredo really knows her sh*t when comes to compost and pet waste, so let’s get educated.
As a CompostableLA member, I know your service does not accept cat litter and pet poop. Is this the norm in the composting industry?
Yes, this is the norm because cat litter and pet feces can contain harmful bacteria and parasites. We give our end product, a.k.a. “compost,” back to our members to use in their gardens. While it’s technically possible to compost dog feces, it would have to be done separately, and for a longer time to kill the pathogens, only to be used afterward in non-food-producing gardens. Cat litter and feces, in particular, should never be composted because they may contain Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that can infect humans and animals, which isn’t always killed during the process. As a result, most composting facilities will ask you to dispose of pet feces in the trash.
So pet waste is most likely ending up in a landfill?
Yes, that’s correct. From this point forward, just imagine that’s where it will sit for a very, very long time.
Similarly, CompostableLA does not accept “bioplastics” either. What does that refer to?
Bioplastic refers to plastic that is made or derived from biological materials (plants and fibers), and/or is biodegradable under specific conditions. Marketing claims around bioplastics are often confusing, suggesting to consumers that their “made from plants” packaging will degrade to nothing over a period of time. It’s very important to emphasize that bioplastics are chemically different from the actual plant that they were derived from, and they don’t break down the same way food waste does.
Kind of like a biodegradable or “compostable” poop bag, for instance?
Exactly! If the bag is biodegradable, all that means is that it will decay into different components over a long period of time, such as water, smaller pieces of plastic (a.k.a. “microplastics”) and even methane. If the bag is “compostable,” it means that it can be broken down via microbial digestion and leaves no harmful materials behind. The only caveat is that it requires very specific conditions to do so. If it doesn’t have those conditions, it will not break down properly either.
So, there are only two current “green” options when picking up my dog’s poop, and both result in the waste ending up in a landfill.
A: A “biodegradable” bag will take decades to break apart, often into smaller pieces of plastic, while simultaneously releasing methane.
B: A “compostable” bag ends up in a landfill and doesn’t have the conditions it needs to break down properly, so it does not break down and will ultimately release methane into the air?
Yes. Since it is composed of organic matter, that is correct.
This sounds like a lot of greenwashing to me. What should pet owners do instead?
It absolutely is greenwashing. In fact, I’d like to argue that there are products that are not only more expensive but worse for the environment because they contain “virgin” materials, which have their own carbon footprint to produce, plus release methane in landfills. That’s why I recommend pet owners use recycled plastic poop bags. They contain materials that were already in the system and bound for the trash since recycled materials eventually must be thrown away. Also, unlike their bioplastic counterparts, they do not release methane.
Is there a brand that you would recommend?
I use Green Polly because they are made from 90% post-consumer recycled plastic. They are strong, comparable in size to standard poop bags, and widely available online. If you are picking up a lot of pet waste at one time, I like Hippo Sak’s recycled plastic bags made from ocean-bound plastic.
Remember that single-use is single-use. Even if it says it’s “compostable,” know that it most likely will end up in a landfill, so the goal is to use fewer new materials whenever possible. And if people are interested in learning more about how to compost their dog feces at home, there’s more information on my website.
Dave Coast is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and Digital Creator living with his partner and dog, Stanley, in Los Angeles, CA. He founded www.thehealthycamper.com to create a wellness destination for the mind, body, spirit, and planet. His work has been featured in GQ, OUT, Mother Jones, VeryWell, Apartment Therapy and Outside magazines. He regularly creates content about nutrition, fitness, healthy living, men’s grooming, LGBT relationships, and sustainability. Watch his new IGTV series, Wellness Myth Busters on Instagram.