More kudos to Slow Food Nation: Bioplastic utensils with improved labeling

Photo of biodegradable (bioplastic) spoon and knifeIn a post about bioplastics a few months ago, I lamented the failure of some bioplastic manufacturers to label their products as biodegradable or compostable: a fork that was supposedly biodegradable had absolutely no markings at all. At the Slow Food Nation Taste Pavilions* over Labor Day weekend, I ran across two companies that providing better labels on their products.

Photo of biodegradable (bioplastic) tableware

The forks, spoons, and knives used in the Taste Pavilions were Tater Ware, a potato-based bioplastic that degrades under certain conditions. (I have e-mailed the manufacturer and will update this post if I hear back.)  The implements look and feel like most plastic ware, but if you look closely at the handle, you'll see "Biodegradable" on one side and the manufacturer's name on the other, as the photo below indicates.

In the Spirits Pavilion, the cocktails were served in small clear cups made from polylactic acid (PLA), a plastic-like material made primarily from corn (Smithsonian magazine has a nice article on PLA). The cups had a clear "compostable" label along one side of the cup's base.

Photo of compostable (PLA / bioplastic) drinking cup

These labels are a good start, but probably not specific enough because not all biological environments are the same — backyard compost piles, for example, aren't as hot as commercial or municipal compost facilities, and therefore won't cause decomposition of certain types of bioplastics. A numbering system similar to that used for petro-plastics might be more useful.

We also need to educate people about compostable materials. We could all start looking at disposable items for labels and asking restaurants about the materials, while also thinking in a new way about paper napkins and other paper products. Nearly everything at the Slow Food Nation Taste Pavilion was compostable, but there was enough material being tossed into the trash and recycling bins that they eventually assigned staff and volunteers to advise people about which container to use. I hope that many attendees learned a thing or two about waste management as they sampled the delicious tastes. (As part of their Waste Wise Initiative, the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market has similar 'waste consultants' to help shoppers pick the right bin.)

I recently attended a conference at the Long Beach Convention Center and was pleased to see that all of the disposable forks and cups were made from compostable material. However, in my view, the convention center had not properly adapted to this change. although there were three classes of material, each waste station had only two containers — one marked "Trash" and one marked "Recyclables."  One of the signs touting the convention center's environmental programs instructed the reader to put compostable material in the recycling bin. Although it's possible that some manual trash sorting was occurring in the bowels of the facility, instructing people to mix compostables with recyclables seems like a bad idea to me, as it etches away years of messages about separating recyclable materials.

Despite some bumps in the road, recent developments show that manufacturers, event planners, and consumers are starting to improve their systems and behaviors around bioplastics and compostables. Nonetheless, we should remember that bringing your own metal fork or durable mug to a restaurant or cafe is usually a better alternative to bioplastics or compostable materials. In other words, mindful eating and drinking often begins long before you take the first bite or sip.

*I was impressed by the waste management program at the big Slow Food Nation events (the Taste Pavilions and Marketplace). In preparatory newsletters, they requested that people bring their own water bottles and eating implements. At the events they agressively promoted tap water (teaming up with Food and Water Watch and other organizations). At the Taste Pavilions, the plates and bowls were unbleached paper; the forks, spoons, and knives were bioplastic (the Taterware pictured above); the cocktail cups were bioplastic (the NatureWorks pictured above); wine and beer glasses were reusable glass; coffee cups were reusable ceramic. While it would have been ideal to have reusable plates and so forth everywhere, that option was probably not possible for such a huge event, so kudos to Slow Food Nation for including waste management in their planning and then doing the best that they could.

6 Responsesto “More kudos to Slow Food Nation: Bioplastic utensils with improved labeling”

  1. Hi Marc,
    Thanks for writing about the labeling issue. I can't imagine why a bioplastic manufacturer wouldn't want to label their product as such, but it is really common. At least bags are often better labeled, but serviceware is lagging behind.
    One thing I wanted to point out, and I'm hoping someone knows more about it, is that there seems to be some confusion or perhaps misrepresentation out there about what biodegradable actually is. I've seen plastic bags that claim to be biodegradable, but I think some of them just break down into itty bitty pieces of plastic...they don't truly decompose into organic matter. And they certainly won't decompose in a landfill!
    There is a standard out there that certifies products as compostable. It's through the Biodegradable Products Institute. The City of SF's recommended products list (for foodservice) only includes BPI certified products. Spudware is not on the list. I wonder why. Would Spudware stand up to the decomposition test? Is the fee for certification overly hefty? I'm going to write to them and find out. I'll let you know what I hear.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Is compostable plastic *really* compostable? I mean, could you put it in your compost pile and then spread it on your vegetable garden?

  3. tasterspoon says:

    My employer recently switched from providing plastic flatware to providing the corn-based stuff. 

    Points for trying, but I feel similarly frustrated, because there's nowhere to throw the forks away but in the garbage, which I suspect defeats the purpose.  At least the plasticware could, in theory, be reused (I've been putting mine in the dishwasher).  Not that anyone did.  And I'm pretty sure our building doesn't have a compost pickup...setting out containers and hauling the cornware home would be a one-woman project.

    I couldn't think of a realistic solution, and this post reminded me that - duh! - regular silverware could solve this issue in one step - we have the dishwashers already, and metal would defeat the instinct to simply throw plasticware away.  I'm going to suggest that now.  Thanks!

  4. Jason says:

    Perhaps the plant-based plastics industry has since evolved, but is it not true that most corn-based plastics are derived from GM corn? As for the "taters," I have no idea. If this is the case, I'd rather just stick to my Swiss-army style flatware.

  5. lenny says:

    love this post.  as an event planner, i hate using disposables,  even though i know they are compostable because most folks don't.  having the label, helps educate consumers.

    awesome.  thanks!

  6. Russ says:

    First of all, standards for compostability are critical.   BPI (Biodegradable Product Institute) has a logo program that can clearly be displayed for products that 100% compost.   The danger of phony products that truly don't compost is that they end up as fragments, sometimes visible and sometimes invisible....the invisible ones are the ones that are so tiny they can't be screened, but can end up washing from your compost into your drinking water....think about that next time you drink from the faucet and wonder whether that phony biodegradable product would have been better off not breaking down at all and screenable.  The cost of the test is a weak reason to not meet a very credible industry requirement.   
    Also Compost facilities for the Northwest, like Cedar Grove, only accept BPI products.