How can you tell if something is really compostable?

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Is it Composable?

It can be confusing. How can you tell if that bag on the shelf at the 99 cent store is really compostable, or if it’s just greenwashing? If you use it, will you be helping, or adding contamination to the compost stream without even realizing it? There are a few things that you can look for to help you know whether a product is genuinely compostable like EcoSafe products, or if it’s just made to look green and sold at a discount.

Look for the Word “Compostable”

The simplest way to determine if a material is compostable is to look for the word “compostable” on the packaging or label. This controlled term in most places, meaning that companies that mark their products as compostable are saying that they can be put in a compost pile. This labeling helps you quickly identify suitable items and ensures they can be processed correctly at your industrial composting facility. Be aware that terms like “biodegradable” or “eco-friendly” do not necessarily mean the product is compostable. Only “compostable” guarantees that the product meets the stringent requirements needed to decompose effectively without contaminating the compost stream. Always look specifically for “compostable” to avoid confusion and contamination.

Check for Compostable Certifications

Another reliable way to identify compostable materials is to look for certifications from recognized organizations. Certifications from the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) and the Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA) are particularly trustworthy. These certifications indicate that the product has been tested and meets the rigorous standards for compostability in industrial facilities. By displaying the BPI or CMA logo, the product has been vetted and approved by a neutral third-party organization, giving you confidence in its compostability. This third-party verification ensures that the material will break down properly in your industrial composting process, ensuring high-quality compost and minimizing the risk of contamination.

Inspect for Non-Compostable Components

Even if a product is labeled as (or assumed to be) compostable, it’s important to inspect it for any non-compostable components. Many items may include parts that need to be removed before composting. For example, most pizza boxes are compostable, but the stickers used to keep them closed are not. These stickers should be removed and disposed of properly to avoid contaminating the compost. Are tea bags compostable? Yes, but you should check for staples or other not compostable items holding the tea label to the thread. Other common non-compostable elements to watch out for include plastic linings, metal parts, and adhesives. By carefully inspecting products and removing any non-compostable components, you help ensure that only suitable materials enter the compost stream, maintaining the quality and effectiveness of your industrial composting process.

When in Doubt, Throw It Out

If you’re ever unsure whether a material is compostable, it’s best to follow the rule: “When in doubt, throw it out.” While it might seem counterintuitive to discard potentially compostable items, this precaution helps prevent contamination in the compost stream. Contaminants can disrupt the composting process and result in lower-quality compost. By erring on the side of caution and discarding questionable items, you help maintain the integrity of the compost and ensure that the final product is beneficial for the environment. Always prioritize the overall health of your composting system.


Successfully identifying compostable materials is crucial for maintaining the efficiency and quality of industrial composting processes. By looking for the word “compostable,” checking for trusted certifications, inspecting for non-compostable components, and following the “when in doubt, throw it out” rule, you can ensure that only suitable items make it into your compost stream. These simple steps help prevent contamination, support effective composting, and contribute to a healthier environment. Make composting a habit and share these guidelines with others to promote sustainable practices and a greener planet.

Download our cheat sheet for an easy way to remember what goes in the green bin.


Common Composable Questions:

  • Are pizza boxes compostable? Yes, pizza boxes are compostable. Clean cardboard should be recycled if possible.
  • Are coffee cups compostable? No, most have plastic linings. Wax lined cups are compostable. Scratch your nail on the inside of the cup. If wax comes off on your fingernail, the cup can likely be composted.
  • Are tea bags compostable? Yes, if they don’t contain plastic or metal staples.
  • Are plastic bags compostable? No. Never. Compostable film bags, on the other hand, are compostable.
  • Are egg cartons compostable? Yes, if made of cardboard; no for foam or plastic. If the cardboard is free of any organic material, recycling it is a better option.
  • Are paper towels and napkins compostable? Yes, if they’re free of chemicals. Do not compost disposable cloths that have been used with cleaning chemicals.
  • Are food scraps compostable? Of course. In an industrial compost facility, all food scraps are compostable.
  • Are paper plates and utensils compostable? Only if labeled compostable.
  • Is pet waste and pet waste bags compostable? In some areas, pet waste is an accepted composting item. Most areas in North America do no accept pet waste.
  • Are cotton balls and swabs compostable? Yes, if 100% cotton.
  • Are receipts compostable? No, they often contain chemicals and should be recycled with other paper products.
  • Is chewing gum compostable? No, because of the chemicals in gum that give it it’s rubbery texture, it is not composable.
  • Are cigarette butts compostable? No, the filters contain plastic.
  • Are wine corks compostable? Yes for natural cork; no for synthetic.

Food loss and waste occur at each stage of the supply chain. The biggest proportion (about 37%) happens in the home.

ReFED, 2021