Biorecyclapostables

By Mark Milby, No Waste Program Coordinator

It’s an interesting time for folks concerned with waste. New packaging products boasting less environmental impact are making their debut every month, and frankly, it’s getting confusing. Accordingly, there’s an argument raging in the waste industry over the pros and cons of these products. As IU’s No Waste Coordinator, I get a lot of questions from event planners, department heads, and curious students about which products they should be using. But don’t worry – I’m here for you. Let’s decompose all the trash talk into the bottom line.

http://old.ecocycle.org/zwevents/DIY/acceptable_materials.cfm

But first off, let two things stand above the fray:

  1. Reusable or permanent anything is always better than disposable anything. Don’t forget the first two R’s.
  2. When product is advertised as “green” or has images of grass, leaves, or anything else green, don’t just take their word for it.http://www.dermalsource.com/STORE/ecom-catshow/cleanandgreen.html

Let’s start with the basics. Unless you’re a backyard composter, every bit of your municipal solid waste goes to one of three places: A landfill, a recycling transfer station or MRF, or a centralized composting facility (somewhat rare in the U.S.). In general, we want to avoid burying organic materials in landfills – it causes methane emissions from anaerobic digestion, and packing problems as it breaks down; in fact, it’s illegal to put yard waste in Indiana landfills. So first ask yourself: “Do I have access to a centralized composting facility?” (Hint – that pile in your backyard or the one that farmer you know has isn’t nearly hot enough for compostable silverware, bags, china, or cups.) Sending compostable products to the landfill strips them of much of their benefit; however, there may still be some advantage to using a plant-based material (“renewable”) over non-renewable resources. If I were in your situation, however (which I am), then I would error on the side of recyclable materials. Many folks advocate for recycling anyway, as it “keeps molecules in play”. Plus, there are huge energy savings in making new products out of recycled raw materials rather than virgin material. It’s also our main export to China, to the tune of eight billion dollars a year.

That said, here’s a list of product types you will see on the shelf, with a sample of the discussion that should be going on in your head while you survey the selection:

  •  “Recyclable” – Is it accepted in my location? Can I prefer those recyclables with greater associated energy savings (metals are better than glass and plastic – some universities are switching to all-aluminum vending)
  • “Recycled content” – The higher the better, and is the product still recyclable?
  • “Plant-based plastic” (water bottle companies are getting into this) – It’s probably marginally better than regular plastic, because regular plastic is derived from petrochemicals. But it’s still just plastic, so it’s recyclable, not compostable. And it’s usually made with corn, and we all know the issues that raises.http://keepithomeschool.com/client/coke-plant-bottle/
  • “Plant-based fiber” (take-out containers, cups) – An alternative to extruded polystyrene foam (Styrofoam), but make sure it doesn’t have a wax lining, and do you have a place to compost it?
  • “Biodegradable” – This is fishy to me – what the heck does that mean? Anything with organic derivatives will biodegrade! Come on, we need more information. It helps if it’s BPI certified (Biodegradable Products Institute). Do you have a place to compost it? These are definitely not recyclable.
  • “Compostable” – This is a tribute to those of us who still have one of those noisy SunChips bags in our backyard pile. That bag was where many of us learned the crucial lesson: These products are only compostable in industrial-scale composting operations.

http://blog.lightninglabels.com/sustainability/frito-lay-bets-the-farm-on-its-compostable-packaging/So, ready for that bottom line I promised you? Here’s how you should prioritize your product purchases:

If you can recycle most things but don’t have access to centralized composting:

  1. Take a good, hard look at your needs and means and replace any kind of disposable product with a permanent or reusable version.
  2. Make sure everything that can be recyclable is so.
  3. Make sure items which cannot be recyclable (plates, napkins, silverware) are plant or fiber-based, with no chemical bleaching.

If you have access to both recycling and centralized composting:

  1. Take a good, hard look at your needs and means and replace any kind of disposable product with a permanent or reusable version.
  2. Make sure everything that can be recyclable is so.
  3. Make sure items which cannot be recyclable (plates, napkins, silverware) are plant or fiber-based, with no chemical bleaching, and compostable.

Yes, I just made you read the same thing twice. It’s important! Now hear me out for one last thing: Remember your poor audience. Nobody wants to be confused or embarrassed over what goes where. Make it simple, group bins together into “disposal stations”, and put up a big sign explaining what goes where. Heck, post someone at each station to help folks out. I went to a conference that had compostable silverware, non-compostable plant-based plastic cups, waxy paper plates, cans, paper, and a whole host of other nonsense, with a few randomly placed trash cans and some recycling bins labeled “recycling”. The attendees, mostly sustainability professionals, were utterly bewildered. Remember your poor, poor audience.

Good luck!

Feel free to contact Mark at nowaste@indiana.edu

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