Recently, dosage having forgot my lunch for the day, I went to get a sandwich at a new place in town. I had been there once before, and knew the sandwiches were good, but had an issue with the container they came in.
The large plastic container was made more unpleasant due to the fact that the delicious sandwich that it protected sloshed wildly from side to side in the oversized container, unable to gain purchase on the slippery bottom.
When I came back to the sandwich shop, I was ready to confront this unfortunate side effect of an otherwise delicious lunch. I asked for a substitute for the cumbersome plastic, something that might better suit my sandwich eating style. The purveyor assured me that I would want a reseal able container, so as to best make use of the extensive buffet of toppings.
The next statement made me take pause: I was assured that this establishment paid a premium for only compostable plastics, meaning that they would bio-degrade, just like food scraps and yard waste. The business was obviously trying to do the right thing and this intention made me feel good. Yet I was confused because the plastic looked unassumingly average: no eco-plastic, or bio-plastic, or biodegradable name tags to let the consumer know that they were doing their part by using ‘sustainable’ plastic alternatives. I left with a feeling that both I and this shop owner were not getting a fair shake.
I decided to do some research, and found that the company manufacturing the containers, Pactiv, had a rather compelling case for their plastics. Not compostable plastics, mind you, but for their typical plastics. According to the company and their sources, polystyrene takes up a relatively small amount of the municipal solid waste stream, as compared to other packaging products like paper. Once all of this material is sealed in a landfill, there is almost no air or sunlight, making conditions poor for anything to biodegrade, including paper. If this is the case, and nothing is really going to decompose anyway, then why not go with the material that will take up less space? For more information on Pactiv’s packaging choices, check out their product guide.
Pactiv’s assertions assume that material will be going to the landfill, and that paper packaging products are not diverted to composting or recycling programs; this makes sense considering that in much of the country, municipal food scrap recycling (composting) is not available. Given that there are currently not many options available for compostable materials, do Pactiv’s arguments about the merits of polystyrene hold water?
To follow up on my sandwich saga, I went back to my local sandwich spot, and informed the purveyor of my discoveries: his containers, for which he was paying a green premium, were actually your average polystyrene. Lightweight, yes, but also completely permanent. After I eat my sandwich, that container might go into a landfill, it might get blown into the ocean - either way, it goes somewhere, and stays there forever.
We can see that there are different arguments to be made. On the one hand, polystyrene is inexpensive, and it may not take up too much weight in the landfill. On the other hand, it is permanent, and made of oil, a non-renewable resource. What about biodegradable packaging? It has its own plusses and minuses. Yes, it may decompose at the end of its lifecycle, but not if it goes to the landfill. And yes, it is produced from plant starch, which is renewable. All that growing requires land, water, and yes, oil too.
Every day we make choices, and weigh consequences. It can be hard to know how to do the right thing when the choices are so complex. As long as we exhibit some sort of intentionality, that we have some sort of reasoning for our decision making, then we can keep having important conversations, and work our way towards the real truth of the matter, whatever that happens to be.