It seems like over the last year or two, all the major companies have been jumping on board not only with a “green” product line, but with biodegradable plastics. I’d like to focus on the three major food service items that have been getting makeovers: cups, utensils and trash bags.
To narrow it further, forget about items listed simply as “degradable”… what isn’t? This is deceptive. “Biodegradable plastics” or “compostable plastics” that will completely compost in a commercial compost facility are what to look for. PLA (polylactic acid) is one of the most common corn based plastics used.
Are they worth it? I’m not so sure. Assuming they’re non-toxic and biodegrading as described, most people will not be able to compost these items in their backyard piles. This instantly reminds me of the Sun Chips bag, which upset people because they didn’t disappear immediately, let alone for a seemingly indefinite period of time.
The issue with bioplastics is that they need extended high temperatures in order to break down properly. Commercial composting facilities are the only places that really seem to do this easily, and a quick interview or two revealed that they have trouble with them.
Biodegradable plastic trash bags actually appear useful, if not for their high cost, lack of durability and fraudulent imitators. Make sure they are certified to the ASDM D6400 standard, which composting facilities will most likely require. Otherwise, you may end up with an oxo-biodegradable bag, which does not fully compost.
It’s no secret that landfills aren’t aerobic havens of biodegradation, however. What’s the point of spending more on a bag that might just remain as it is? There’s no light in a landfill, and oxygen is not freely mixing anywhere. My experience with these bags is that they fall apart if waste is held in them for too long, so in a way that’s comforting that they will degrade at least to an extent.
Of the three items mentioned, I think that biodegradable trash bags are a fair choice as we will always have material to send out somewhere, be it large quantities of recycling or trash. If everyone recycled and composted to the max, we would still need bags here and there to maintain order.
Next up is the biodegradable cup. I find cups to be avoidable in many situations with enough planning, and I enjoy trying to bring my water bottle with me everywhere I go. One way to do this is to get a nice filtering water bottle so you desire a better taste with no exceptions. Let’s face it- we don’t have water coming out of the tap, it’s fluid at best. Quit the soda and ditch the chlorine taste.
Anyway, Styrofoam cups are much cheaper than bioplastic cups and always will be although there’s essentially no recycling market for them. Who cares, they’re cheap and made of mostly air, right? It’s still a toxic product breaking into smaller pieces to be readily bioaccumulated while doing nothing to change our throw away behaviors.
Finding a compostable paper cup is harder than I once thought. Through some extensive research, I’ve found that most paper cups have a plastic liner inside. That must be a source of the plastic I pull out of my finished compost every once in a while! if you can find a paper cup with a wax liner (soybean wax, not paraffin wax), you are in luck. I haven’t been able to find one, but supposedly they exist and will compost.
I wonder how many plastic utensils get recycled. I’d be willing to wager slim to none, unfortunately. How about the corn or potato based utensils? They seem like a good idea, but this is another case where habitual reduction will outweigh material usage.
I keep one fork at my work desk, and I’ve used it for 5 years. If everyone did this, our disposable flatware needs would diminish quite a bit. I think this is more reasonable than carrying a portable spork around. I tried it, but I kept forgetting it when I needed it.
Little changes can lead to big outcomes, and bioplastics are not the greatest answer. It is possible that they may provide some short term relief, but even that’s questionable. They fall short on addressing the real problem at hand: our (fixable) throwaway culture.