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.

8 Responsesto “Bioplastics need time to grow up”

  1. Daniel says:

    This interesting development might make those plastic forks disappear much more quickly than we previously thought possible.

  2. Steve Sando says:

    I was at an event where we were forced to sample from this kind of spoon and container and I noticed that the things weren’t marked. I asked and I was told it was happening but when I pushed I found most of this stuff is made in China.
    Now maybe this was just from my source but it makes you roll your eyes. The theme of the event was “Green”, whatever that means. Save us from ourselves!

  3. Sam Fromartz says:

    I once tried to compost a bio-container in my backyard compost pile. Cut it up, buried it in the hot part of the pile. It did nothing. As Marc points out, you need a commercial compost operation to break these things down. But that said, I did talk to one composter who successfully composted these things in a commercial operation.

  4. Greg Massa says:

    We recently reviewed our options for the taster spoons we were using to serve samples of our organic rice at the farmers market.  We looked at washing and re-using plastic spoons, compostable spoons, and wooden spoons.  None of the options worked for us.  We didn’t want to wash spoons, the not-so-easy-to-compost spoons are made from fertilizer and pesticide intensive GMO corn, and we weren’t sure of the origin of the wood–not wanting it to be from clear-cut old growth timber.  Our solution?  Get rid of the spoon altogether!  Now people just tip their heads back and shoot the rice out of a small paper cup.  Some people look as us funny, but it’s the best solution for us.

  5. Leah Koenig says:

    It bothers me to see my well-meaning friends turning to bioplastics as “the answer to all our plastic problems.”  They’re better than using old-growth trees to make paper, or petroleum to make plastic, but as you point out, they’re not a panacea.

  6. mahalie says:

    Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater…bioplastics are no panacea, of course, but they are a step in the right direction. Also, when searching for and purchasing said compostable utensils I found many sites to be very clear on the point that they require commercial composting process to break down within 2 years. If you can wait longer, still might be worth it…also, even in a landfill, this is much better than a bunch of nondegradable petroleum plastic.
    Even if they are made in China (I know, this is terrible), supporting bioplastics and therefore not petroleum plastic, will show demand for the product. Maybe a US company will start making them when this market is clearly viable. Don’t forget you are voting for the idea when you buy something, even if the product isn’t perfect yet.

  7. PaulM says:

    Production of just one million tonnes of bioplastic would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by FOUR millions tonnes a year, this is why bioplastics are booming, and it’s why we should all change to bioplastics wherever it is practical to do so. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will help reverse the climate change that is responsible for many crop failures, thus increasing the amount of food available in the world.
    Bioplastics use as little as 25% of the energy used in making plastic.
    Many bioplastics are compostable at home, the best one’s for this are potato starch and blends of potato and corn starch, these are available from Stanelco in the UK, and can be reused, as they only start to break down when put in a compost heap where the microbes can attack them. They are certified to break down in just 90 days. If you know a manufacturer of plastic cutlery you can just ask them to make you batches made from this bioplastic.
    I know of one manufacturer making cutlery from this bioplastic, they are called Giant and are based in Italy
    I know of one Canadian manufacturer making bags and other items using this bioplastic, feel free to ask them if they can make cutlery or other products for you
    Read the FAQ on biopastics, these are the facts not the hype, rumour, or old wives tales often published on blogs and sadly by the press too.

  8. Heather says:

    To San Fromantz (&others) – which composting facilities accept bioplastics? I’m having a hard time finding a list of places I can send this stuff.