Wednesday, September 12, 2018

When 'biodegradable' isn't

We've encountered quite a few companies locally who are paying extra for so-called biodegradable cups, flatware, etc. Most of these products are only compostable in an industrial facility that can generate extreme heat. If your community doesn't have such a facility, you're wasting your money. Ironically it can be more sustainable to use recyclable plastic.

Biodegradable Products Institute Label
If a product says it's compostable in soil, then it will break down under normal backyard conditions but remember, you have to separate all compostable products and compost it! Otherwise it will generate methane in a landfill.

Even products with the Biodegradable Products Institute Label (right) won't biodegrade in small composting operations; note the phrase "in industrial facilities."

Locally, here's the advice we give people and the resources we share, since we don't yet have an industrial composting operation in the area. If you're from out of the Verde Valley, see if you can find equivalent resources.

If the product doesn't say compostable in soil, if Sedona Composts or the Yavapai Food Recovery Program can’t compost the product, then frankly, go for reusable products or recyclable plastic. Otherwise you'll have to find an industrial composting system (there's one in Phoenix).
For cold beverages for example, you're better off with #1 clear plastic cups that can be recycled locally.

Hot beverages are a more difficult problem because there aren't compostable cups (that don't require an industrial composting operation) on the market yet. In this situation, can you provide and wash mugs and silverware? Friends of Flagstaff lends out dishwasher-safe plastic tableware. (It still has to be washed before returning it.) https://www.friendsofflagstaff.org/zero-waste/

You might be able to pick up a bunch of mugs at Paw Prints/Goodwill or borrow some from Sedona Recycles. You can also advertise to customers/attendees to please bring their own travel mug and then sell mugs for people who don’t. Alternatively have travel mugs printed up with your logo. Here’s an example with prices running around $3 each. 
Take out containers have more options and issues. Some recycling systems can't handle black plastic so avoid clamshells with clear tops and black bottoms. No, no, no to Styrofoam! Anything that is microwavable can't be recycled, even if it has a number in a triangle, because it melts at a different temperature than the other plastics of that number. If your foods aren't hot, you may be able to find all-paper to-go containers. But think about what your customers are going to do with it? If most recycle but few compost, you may still be better off with plastic. According to Sedona Recycles, the best plastic take-out container is Ecopax (a #5 like yogurt containers) in beige.
Portion containers can be found in #1 PET plastic with #1 plastic lids.
Straws, just say no. Stop giving out plastic straws automatically. For customers who ask or need one, use straws made from paper, straw (that's where the name comes from!), bamboo or even reusable stainless steel. Participate in the Straw-Free Sedona campaign.

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