Breaking It Down: Corn Plastic and Backyard Compost

Naturally Iowa's Green Water Bottle

Naturally Iowa's Green Water Bottle

In July, at an event on global hunger and climate change, I grabbed a water bottle from the (ironically) lavish spread of drinks and snacks. Even as I sipped, it occurred to me that water bottles specifically are a big source of waste and it seemed especially odd to hand them out at an event discussing climate change and hunger.

As I sat down, however, I took a moment to read the label: “Green Bottle Spring Water.  Made From Plants, Not Oil.” Apparently this means that these water bottles are better for the earth even though, as we know from the ethanol debate, simply replacing an oil product with a plant product is not a silver bullet solution. Another thing printed prominently in black on the otherwise easy on the eyes blue and green bottle label: COMPOSTABLE.

While it’s admirable for a company to take such an interest in waste reduction, I wonder who is going to be able to actually compost these bottles, especially in Washington, D.C. where nearly all waste receptacles are either for trash or recyclables.

A company called Naturally Iowa manufactures the bottles and according to their website, “Green Bottle Spring Water” is “only available through partners that agree to collect empty bottles on site in special receptacles to ensure the bottles do not end up in landfills and provide an acceptable end of life solution for the bottles.”

First John cut the water bottle up into smaller pieces, leaving a few larger ones for comparison.  Then the pieces went into the compost pile!

First John cut the water bottle up into smaller pieces, leaving a few larger ones for comparison. Then the pieces went into the compost pile!

As great as that promise sounds, I couldn’t help but think that it probably isn’t that simple. For starters, my bottle didn’t end up back at their industrial composting site, instead it traveled with me back to my office where I had little choice but to throw it in the trash. And I started to think about how much energy it might take to break down thousands of these bottles at the company’s site if I had been able to get it back to the company.

My colleague, John Mulrow, who works with the energy team, was quick to ask these same questions. And, as an avid backyard composter already, he suggested we try to find some answers on our own. John already collects the office’s coffee grounds and lunch scraps for his backyard compost pile and he suggested we throw the water bottle into the mix as well to see what happens.

Pictures from the first few weeks of experimentation are already up on Nourishing the Planet’s flickr site. You’ll notice that John began by cutting up the bottle into chunks of various sizes. Since compost-ability, like any chemical process, is affected by surface area, this is one factor that could affect how quickly and effectively the Green Bottle breaks down in a simple backyard compost pile.

Make sure to check in regularly as we “break down” the issues of compost and corn plastic.

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