Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Compost Chronicles: Compostables - Friend or Foe?

This entry of the Compost Chronicles was originally posted on The Local Beet.

The first time that I bought disposable dishware in any sizable quantity was for Purple Asparagus. Last February, we signed up with the City to take part in their Winter Events where each weekend we led kids in a different food-centric project. Given the volume (500 kids a weekend) and the messiness of the projects (consider popcorn ball snowmen decorated with dried fruit and honey), we needed an abundance of the stuff. Compostable dishware, which was relatively new to Chicago, seemed to be the right choice for a business seeking to be sustainable. We ordered a case of bowls, a case of spoons and a case of bags for the kiddies to transport their projects with minimal fuss.

On the first day of the festival, I watched our volunteers help the children decorate their snowmen with locally grown, dried fruits “glued” on with locally produced honey. Feeling oh so virtuous, I began to clean up the abandoned bowls and spoons. I certainly didn’t need to worry about wasting, they were compostable! So with a large pile of stickiness, I walked to the garbage bin. Just as I reached my hand to release the first bowl, I looked to the bottom, past all of the discarded soda cups and candy wrappers, and saw the shiny black plastic of the garbage bag. Oh shit, I said to myself. Because at that moment, I realized that compostables won’t compost in a garbage bag destined for a landfill.

In fact, compostables, at least utensils and cups made from corn starch, won’t even compost, at least in a home composter. Built to be sturdy, they break down only in high-heat composting facilities, which are not publicly available to Chicagoans. Moreover, it’s seems troubling, at least to me, that in the face of a global food crisis, we divert potential food supplies, i.e. corn, to create products of convenience for Western society. Another disconcerting fact is that the corn used to create these disposable compostables is in all likelihood genetically engineered. Consider that when you purchase an expensive, organic salad in a compostable container. Finally, should PLA (corn plastics) get mistakenly mixed in with ordinary plastics in the recycling stream, the whole batch is ruined.

And yet, with all of these problems, many well-meaning businesses continue to switch to compostables. To justify this decision, I’ve heard several interesting explanations.

At a street festival, a Kashi representative was passing out samples in PLA cups, which were discarded in plastic lined garbage containers. His justification was that the PLA cups would ultimately require less space in landfills because the corn cups degrade faster than plastic. True. PLA reacts in a landfill just like other organic matter. In plastic bags, without access to light, moisture or oxygen, it degrades anaerobically in a process that creates methane a much more powerful and therefore environmentally destructive green house gas than carbon dioxide. Until society routinely harnesses landfill-generated methane to power our energy-hungry society, this explanation provides cold comfort.

In a recent email, a food service business explained its decision to continue to use its PLA products. It conceded the problems with compostables, but expressed its desire to move America away from our dependence on foreign oil (oil for those of you who don’t know is what regular plastics are made from). But isn’t this a false choice? Not too long ago, the standard post-purchase retail question was ‘paper or plastic.’ Today, we know that the conscientious answer to this question is neither. We need to urge a similar rethinking of our dependence upon convenience in the food world. Whenever possible, we need to decline single use utensils and instead select reusable ones. These days, for when I’m out and about, I’ve got a SIGG for my water, a stainless steel mug for my coffee and bamboo flatware for my meals. When I’m home, I use china, flatware and cloth napkins. Even when you have a party, there’s no need to rely upon disposables. If you’re having a crowd, renting is a cost effective alternative. But for a little fun, you could designate your parties BYOP – bring your own plate – a potentially great ice breaker if you ask your guest to bring their favorite, ugliest or most interesting. At the office, stash away a plate and silverware in your desk. It only takes a minute to wash.

The last justification for the continued use of compostable was put forth at a meeting for sustainably- minded restaurateurs. The speaker, as in my previous example, conceded the limitations of compostables, but urged their continued use to “create awareness.” Now, this was a head scratcher for me. Initially, I thought that there were only two awareness-building possibilities. First, people would have their Eureka moment realizing that their cup made of corn would never compost under the current conditions of disposal. Second, they would believe that their compostables would somehow magically compost under mounds of garbage in the landfill. I realized later that there was a third possibility, one that could create some good. Discarding valuable compostables exposes the great need that we have in this city for a comprehensive composting program. Most of the forward-thinking green cities have in place or are working towards creating a green bin program with curbside/alley pick up of compostable waste. Even Boston, a city older than Chicago, has in the works a state-of-the-art composting facility that would not merely process the city’s organic waste, but seek to capture the escaping gases to power 1,500 Boston residences. If Chicago truly wants to become a green city, it needs to not merely create an effective recycling system, but also a comprehensive program for the reclamation of organic matter through composting.

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