I admit, the wool was totally pulled over my eyes on this one.
Last week, I attended an incredibly eye-opening board meeting at StopWaste.org, Alameda's premiere waste reduction agency. At each monthly board meeting (open to the public), various field experts are invited to help provide information relevant to StopWaste.org's mission of reducing the waste stream in Alameda County, and potentially influence future policy work. This board meeting was the second in a series of three, focused on bioplastics, or "biodegradable plastics." I was already skeptic about the much-loved, and lauded, "answer" to disposable cutlery and table ware; I had heard some rumors flapping around that they weren't entirely compostable, but it was at this meeting that I finally got the full scoop.
To begin with: not all bioplastics are made alike. Some are entirely bio-based (i.e. made of potatoes, corn, sugar) and therefore compostable. Others are a mixture of plastic polymers and bio materials (for instance, plastic enmeshed with cornstarch), and are degradable – not necessarily compostable. The difference between the two lies in how fully that spork will decompose: if it's a fully bio-based utensil, it will eventually break down into water and carbon-dioxide (i.e. it is "compostable"); if it's that plastic/cornstarch kind of spork, it will break down into plastic splinters, water, and carbon dioxide (i.e. it is "degradable").
These mixed / degradable items were introduced as a solution to America's litter problem. Instead of a traditional plastic spork being abandoned, curbside, for the hundreds of years it takes plastic to decompose – a spork made of plastic and cornstarch could at least be broken into smaller, less noticeable pieces. This is a solution similar to BP's response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill: if dispersants are used, and all that oil is broken down into itty bitty amounts, the problem has "gone away"; it's no longer visible to the human eye, and thereby, as the logic goes, it's no longer a threat.
So if not all bioplastics are made alike, isn't it simply a matter of being a savvy consumer, and reading the fine print of what products are fully bio-based? That way we could know what sporks to put in our green bins, and what sporks to put in the landfill, right? Unfortunately, individual education is not the key – national policy is. There are no standards currently in place in the U.S. to quickly, visually determine which bioplastics are 100% bio-based, and which are not. This is an issue because when our food scraps are sent off to large-scale composting facilities, there isn't enough time for workers to examine each utensil and decide whether it's "compostable" or merely "degradable" – all utensils and tableware are plucked off the sorting line and disposed of. Something like a black light (where only bio-based items glowed) or color-coding (like only bio-based items can be green) could help facilitate this process at composting facilities, and provide an easy way for someone to immediately distinguish if something will fully compost or not.
If you want to even get further technical about it: workers would probably continue to pluck bioplastics off the sorting ramps, even if they were all 100% bio-based. There is a lot to consider regarding the methodology of a composting facility, and how it processes its product. Bio-based plastics may be "compostable" – but under what conditions? Not all bio-based products are made alike, and neither are all composting facilities. We lack standards for how and how long something labeled "compostable" actually takes to compost, too. According to one source, at Recology Grover Environmental Products in Vernalis, "No reputable composter, in their right mind, would leave (bioplastics) in compost, unless it was intended to become ADC (alternate daily cover at a landfill)." Composting facilities ensure that their product passes through multiple screenings, beyond the kind of initial "picking station" I had referenced earlier, where workers pick through the materials and discard unwanted items. From what this source said, it didn't sound like a bioplastic spork would make it to the finished product – especially if it were only partly decomposed by the time the other food scraps had degraded into lush, dark compost.
Having decided to do some sleuthing of my own, as a follow-up to the StopWaste.org board meeting, I was surprised to learn that what I thought were straight-forward questions regarding the topic of bioplastics were, according to one source over the telephone, "a little like asking how tall the building is." Unoffended by the comment, I realize now the scale of complexity of this issue: beyond the diversity of processing at composting sites, and the diversity of bioplastic products themselves, lies the ultimate intention of the finished compost: would it be sold as organic, or conventional? Most composting facilities in CA strive to get an OMRI listing, or the Organic Material Review Institute. OMRI is a nonprofit, based in Oregon, that "provides organic certifiers, growers, manufacturers, and suppliers an independent review of products intended for use in certified organic production, handling, and processing." This is essential for being certified with the CCOF, or California Certified Organic Farmers, a membership organization that promotes organic farming and small-scale agriculture. The problem is: many bioplastic companies don't care about being certified organic, and so their products are not made to get an OMRI listing.
"There's a big fight brewing in the regulatory and commercial world," my source explained. "And as of yet, there's no moderation of these forces. There's a big push in some cities for increased diversion, but you only have several choices (to make that happen): gasify, compost, recycle. Even if bioplastics compost, or degrade, they don't meet organic standards, so what do you do with it? Right now there's no central planning of how it will all work out." Composting facilities, at the end of the day, are still running a business: the product they sell is finished compost, which can be a hot commodity for landscapers and farmers in CA if it's organic, less so if it's conventional. Hopefully, the next wave of bioplastic companies and products will be prepared to address this issue, so that it's truly a win-win: bioplastic products can successfully be composted (instead of being successfully sent to the landfill), and composting facilities can still make their organic certification.
As of now, then, California's compost facilities don't want our bioplastics, nor do the recyclers (they weaken plastics recycling). Only the landfill folks don't mind them. So where does that leave us? I admit I initially felt uneasy, even betrayed, by falling for the bioplastic "solution;" I thought back to all the times I had carefully, consciously, purchased the more expensive Spudware and other bioplastic tableware to use at events to make them "zero waste." If bioplastics use just as much petroleum to produce as regular plastics, and they can't even be composted, what is the point?
As Einstein put it, you can't solve a problem at the same level of mind that created it. Of course there are plenty of opportunities for policy change – for new standards to be put into place to identify which sporks are plastic, which are potato, and which are a combination of the two; for standards regarding the conditions under which that potato spork will compost; and lastly, for standards that will determine how bioplastic utensils can be certified organic. For now, I'm writing bioplastics off as another successful greenwashing creation, and challenging myself to make things zero waste the old fashioned way: planning ahead and using truly reusable items (i.e. metal forks and spoons, chopsticks), or making a finger-food friendly menu. I also know better than to pay extra for those bioplastic utensils, as that money is better spent on other enviro-causes than something destined for the landfill. I challenge you to make the same commitments, and re-think America's dependence on single-use items. I also invite you to check out future StopWaste.org board meetings, and to continue to educate yourself on other greenwashing strategies and products. The more you know, and can educate others, the more we can all ensure that we're truly working for a more sustainable future, not just a well-marketed "green" one.