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If you save food scraps for composting, a liner bag labeled as compostable or biodegradable may seem like a great way to keep your kitchen bucket clean and transport all those veggie peels and coffee grinds to your compost heap or municipal collection bin. However, whether or not you should buy those liners depends on several factors, and experts say it’s better to forgo liners altogether or just reuse paper bags instead.
Here's what you need to know about compost bin liners, why they may do more harm than good even if they’re compostable, and how you can keep your kitchen tidy without them.
Compostable bags may look and feel similar to plastic produce bags made from petroleum, but they’re manufactured out of plant-based materials, such as vegetable starches, wood pulp, lactic acid, or soy proteins. These materials are designed to be consumed by microorganisms that help them decompose into the soil-like organic substance we know as compost.
The problem is that not all composting systems create the right environment for these bags to fully break down. Typically, only municipal or commercial composting facilities—not home composting setups—generate enough heat, moisture, and airflow to allow for full decomposition. But these facilities can also differ in their capacities, so even if your food scraps get collected for off-site composting, compostable bags may still be prohibited.
It depends. Just as every town seems to have its own set of rules about what kind of recycling it accepts, one composting system may differ from another in its ability to take compostable bags—or even non-compostable ones. For example, to boost participation in its relaunched food-waste pickup program in Queens, the New York City Department of Sanitation actually allows residents to throw food scraps into collection bins using regular, old, earth-polluting plastic grocery bags, which are later filtered out.
The most important thing you can do is confirm with your municipal collection, compost drop-off, or private composting service what kinds of materials are and aren’t allowed and then abide by that.
If you can use compostable bags, your best bet is to look for ones with a logo from the Biodegradable Products Institute, a not-for-profit organization that issues a compostability certification widely considered the gold standard in the US. (You can also check here to see if an item is BPI certified.) The certification relies in part on ASTM International compostability standards to determine whether an item will break down “quickly, completely and safely, when composted in well-run municipal and commercial facilities.” It also prohibits the addition of per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS), which are sometimes used in packaging and can persist in the environment for a very long time.
You probably don’t want to, since they likely won’t decompose well. At-home composting systems, including tumblers, in-ground composters, and worm towers, typically don’t generate enough heat to fully break the bags down. “We have experimented with trying to compost these bags in backyard tumblers and did not have much success; they composted somewhat, but definitely not fully,” said Michelle Bradley, co-founder of Java’s Compost, a private composting service in New Jersey.
No, you can’t. A bag (or another disposable item, like plastic cutlery) that’s labeled biodegradable is not necessarily also compostable. In fact, BPI executive director Rhodes Yepsen says biodegradable is a word that’s “too vague to be meaningful” as a marketing term on its own without additional context. A manufacturer can call an item biodegradable without specifying that the degradation process could take centuries or require a specific environment to thoroughly degrade. The term also doesn’t necessarily mean that the item breaks down into nontoxic components, either; it just means that, sooner or later, it breaks down into something else.
“It’s not a real thing,” at least not in terms of waste management, said New York City Department of Sanitation commissioner Jessica Tisch. “If a product can’t be composted, it’s going to a landfill. And if it’s going to a landfill, the biodegradable stuff in a landfill sits there for decades or centuries.”
Some cities suggest residents use brown paper bags as liners for their food-scrap containers instead of buying so-called compostable bags. But as always, if you’re participating in an off-site composting program, it’s best to confirm if paper bags are accepted. For at-home composting, brown paper bags are a great addition, since paper goods can improve the nutritional balance of compost.
Stashing food scraps in your freezer is another way to keep things tidy and odor free. Tisch (who opts for this method at home) notes that if you store your compost in the freezer you can forgo a countertop bin altogether; instead, you can use something like an old plastic takeout container, which you can wash between uses.
If you opt for a countertop container, one with a built-in charcoal filter helps reduce odor. (The Oggi Countertop Compost Pail comes with a filter and is a staff favorite.) And, of course, if you take out the bin often and rinse it out after each use, smells shouldn’t build up in the first place.
If you’re looking for more recommendations about what to do with those scraps after you’ve collected them, check out our staff’s favorite compost bins.
This article was edited by Katie Okamoto and Christine Cyr Clisset.
1. Michelle Bradley, co-founder of Java’s Compost, email interview, September 13, 2022
2. Rhodes Yepsen, executive director at Biodegradable Products Institute, email interview, September 19, 2022
3. Jessica Tisch, commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation, phone interview, September 29, 2022
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