Bioplastics need time to grow up
Wednesday's Restaurant Journal column in the Los Angeles Times digs into the topic of takeout containers and single-use utensils at L.A. restaurants. With city bans on non-recyclable and non-compostable materials (e.g., polystyrene) and restaurants attempting to be greener, there is quite a discussion about the best packaging and accessories for takeout orders.
"Bioplastics" — plastic-like materials made from plants like corn, potatoes, or sugar cane — are getting a lot of attention because they are compostable, unlike a plastic utensil that will be around nearly forever. "Compostable" is an attractive word: "I can just toss the fork or container in the compost pile in my backyard or out my window and it will disappear…Right?"
Wrong. It's not that easy.
As I described in detail at Growers and Grocers last year, most bioplastics only break down at the high temperature found in municipal composting systems, not in backyard compost piles. Thus, if your city doesn't have food- and green-waste collection services, it's pretty hard to compost a bioplastic fork or spoon.
A factor that adds to confusion around bioplastics is that most manufacturers have failed to mark their products as compostable. For example, the bioplastic fork I used at a recent event had no markings whatsoever — no numbers, no logo, no manufacturer name, nothing. To which I say: c'mon, have a little bit of pride in your product! How is a consumer supposed to know that the fork can go into the green waste bin instead of the trash or recycling bin?
Finally, I've been wondering about the fossil fuel balance for bioplastic utensils. Take a fork made out of corn as an example. Growing corn requires a lot of fossil fuel inputs (natural gas to make nitrogen fertilizer, diesel fuel to power tractors, trains and trucks, and so on). Do they require more or less fossil fuel to manufacture and transport than a standard plastic fork?
Bioplastics might be an important part of a move towards sustainability, but a few obstacles in infrastructure, labeling and eduction need to be overcome first.
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