In 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.
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.
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.