The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
August 27, 2008

Compostable Containers: Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

This is a photo of a few things I brought home from the Outside Lands Music Festival Friday night: Two compostable cups made from corn and two compostable potato or cornstarch spoons. (Mine and my friend’s.) As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I forgot to bring my cute reusable bamboo utensils with me. And I didn’t think to bring a cup for wine either so felt lucky to find compostables rather than plastic or Styrofoam.

When I took my compostable cup back to the wine vendor for a refill, the server said, “It’s okay. You can have a new one.” Yeah, I can. But why should I? Just because an item can be composted, does that mean we have to compost it after one use? Just because an item is recyclable, does that mean we are compelled to recycle it immediately?

In yesterday’s post I whined about the “recyclable” plastic wine “glasses” being handed out in the WineHaven tent. Of course we know that plastic recycling is actually downcycling. But even if it weren’t, what if each person who accepted one of those recyclable plastic cups kept it, took it home, and brought it back to the next outdoor event to reuse? How much energy could be saved if people thought in terms of reuse before recycling?

I was considering this stuff while riding BART to work today, musing on how much less energy could be spent on “waste diversion” if less energy were spent to create the waste in the first place. And once I arrived at the office, in one of those weird moments of synchronicity, I opened my email to find a Seattle Times article forwarded to me by Fake Plastic Fish reader Ken Mott about how Microsoft’s cafeteria has recently received certified-green restaurant status from the Green Restaurant Association, in part by switching out plastic and Styrofoam for all compostable dishes, cups, and utensils.

When I look at this photo, I don’t see an effort to protect the environment. I just see waste. More waste. Better than plastic, sure. At least it’s compostable. But think of all the materials and energy that went into creating these utensils that will most likely be used once and discarded. Not to mention the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used to grow the corn these things are made from. According to the article, Microsoft says, “Our goal is to have 50 percent of what was going to the landfill now go to Cedar Grove [composting facility].”

Why not use durable utensils, cups, and dishes and avoid creating waste in the first place?

One change that Microsoft has made is to substitute compostable cups for their previous Styrofoam coffee cups. But, according to the article, the new cups take some getting used to. In a statement that would be funny if it weren’t so maddening, Mark Freeman, senior manager in charge of food services, says of the new cup, “‘It starts composting the minute you use it,’ noting that employees have learned not to leave half-full cups for long periods of time to avoid spills.”

You know, in all the time I’ve had my reusable mug, not once has it started to compost, no matter how long I’ve used it. Why isn’t Microsoft encouraging employees to bring their own mugs to work? Or giving them reusable mugs as a little perk? What will it take for us to get away from this use once and toss mentality?

It’s not easy for any of us. Even I ended up with waste (albeit plastic-free) at the end of the night: waste which could have been avoided if I’d done a bit more planning ahead and brought my own utensils and cups to the festival. But just because my dishes can be composted doesn’t mean I have to toss them in the green bin immediately. The paperboard bowl will soon become plant food, but the cups and spoons can be used again (as long as I don’t wash them in super hot water.)

And maybe those in charge of greening festivals and conferences and the cafeterias of mega-corporations would be wise to change their vocabulary and think in terms of waste reduction rather than simply waste diversion.
 

34 comments
bamboo canes garden
bamboo canes garden

Thank you for this blog post. I think it's important for people to read you.

bamboo canes garden
bamboo canes garden

Thank you for this blog post. I think it's important for people to read you.

Anonymous
Anonymous

I have been contacted by Mr Michael Dwork. He disputes my critiques, I believe my comments to be valid, readers may choose to disregard my previous posts, and should make their own inquires.Richard - Murwillumbah, Australia.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Reply to Paul Smith, who is working for Verterra:Critique of Michael Dwork, founder of VerterraI am an occasional reader of Time magazine and stumbled upon a business article by Jeremy Caplan on Verterra Dinnerware in the October 13, 2008 edition (Australian) of Time (page 52). Also at: www.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1706699_1707550_1846340,00.htmlJeremy Caplan’s article is careful not to over-state or claim. However, it strongly implies that Michael Dwork had an "idea" in southern India in 2006, that Mr Dwork developed his idea with "engineer friends", "crossed Asia to find plants for his plates", "through Laos, Thailand and Cambodia", "testing dozens", "in search of the perfect leaf" and so on. Before settling on a palm leaf in southern India - wow. I think it should be known that plates and bowls steam-pressed from the leaf-base (sheath) of the Areca (the so called ‘betel nut’) palm (Areca catechu) have been manufactured in southern India since long before 2006.Indeed, in 2006, steam-pressed Areca palm plates and bowls were already in Indian city stores and on display at trade expos in southern India, and have been imported into Australia with the name of Eco-Vision Bioplate since 2005 or earlier. Areca plates have also been imported into Germany, Switzerland and United Kingdom since or before 2003.Jeremy Caplan’s article includes a photo of Mr Dwork leaning on a small palm tree. I can say, with reasonable certainty, that this small palm is of the species Areca catechu, the common, plantation, Areca palm. It seems Mr Dwork copied a well established product (material and method) and imported Areca plates into the US market - which is hardly an "entrepreneurial gamble" and is definitely not an original idea.Mr Dwork was a member of the ‘entrepreneurship class’ at Columbia School of Business. Mr Dwork went on, with ‘his idea’, to become the 2007 winner of the A. Lorne Weil Outrageous Business Plan Competition, and received $100,000 in seed funding from the Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurial Initiative Fund - which is remarkable considering the Lang Fund’s emphasis for originality. What is outrageous is Michael Dwork appearing to grab the credit and failing to acknowledge Indian ingenuity, Indian producers and Indian exporters who have manufactured quality steam-pressed Areca plates identical to the Verterra product, and who have done so for years before Michael Dwork arrived in 2006.For a history of the Areca plate visit: www.ecovision.com.au www.eco-vision.in/companyprofile.htmThis limited critique has been sent to the following:Michael Dwork michael@verterra.com Jeremy Caplan via Time Time magazine Columbia School of Business United States Patent and Trademark OfficeThe New York Times New York PostAnd others.Richard - Murwillumbah, Australia.30th October 2008.Critique of Michael Dwork and Verterra - continuation.The overdeveloped salesmanship practiced by Michael Dwork and Verterra includes the assertion that shipping palm leaf sheaths from India to New York is okay because rural people would otherwise only burn the sheaths. This claim by Verterra is deceptive. Although palm leaves may sometimes be burnt for mosquito control, it is arrogant for Mr Dwork to infer that Indian farmers are not aware of the benefits of putting organic material into the soil (composting/mulch).Also, in rural India cooking is usually over a fire, and dried palm sheaths are an excellent fuel for the domestic fireplace. Removing Areca palm sheaths from rural areas may have unforeseen impacts, as other sources of cooking fuel need to be collected from the forest or fields. Verterra are proud to own extensive production facilities in India, which is, no doubt, the optimum for New York based Verterra’s balance sheet. Although Verterra’s facilities provide employment, its wider value for rural development is questionable, and may even be detrimental for rural self-esteem, as the villager labours for the foreign company that stole ‘their’ product. Other producers of Areca plates include village cooperatives, the greater benefit for rural development would be obvious.If your concern is to support rural development in India, please consider Areca products from village manufacture.I like to have Areca palm containers for display in the home. However, from the environmental perspective, the promotion of any single-use dishware is not appropriate - unless intended for areas with serious water shortages. In Australia, artists make delightful baskets and ‘sculpture’ from the leaf sheaths of the Bangalow palm Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, which is also an Arecaceae Palmae.Richard - Murwillumbah, Australia.Yes, I am a frequent visitor to India, and I do not have any financial interest in any business associated with Areca products. 14th November 2008.

Paul Smith
Paul Smith

I totally agree with your perspective. And I think there are some compostable products that meet a need, in few different ways: Verterra are plates made entirely from palm leaves and the steam used to shape them. No binders to give them shape and leech into your food as you eat. Yes, they're ultimately disposable, but they are made from what would otherwise be agricultural waste, burnt. They take very little energy to make, apparently only a bit more than the CEO's little NYC apartment. They are washable (I've used mine more then 10 times now) and compost quickly, no special environment needed.So, while using and reusing real plates is desirable ultimately, when a situation calls for other options, Verterra would seem to be a great option. Check them out at www.verterra.com

Colleen
Colleen

here here! i havent had a chance to read every comment, so sorry if i'm being repetitive. once again, you have hit on issues i think about ALL the time! i'll never understand why disposables are always the first choice. I read what one reader wrote about the hoops an organization has to jump through to deal with cleaning dishes. it seems like those hoops would have been worth it in long-term cost savings alone for microsoft. not only would they not have to buy all these materials, but they would have to deal with industrial composting of them. yes, it would require a little more labor, time, etc. to wash dishes, but that seems worth it - especially if they are trying to be an "eco" cafeteria. Your comment about the mugs is extra important. The company could give out (or even sell) metal mugs with their logo and encourage people to use them. They would save SO much money on disposable cups AND wouldnt even have to deal with washing them, because individuals would be responsible for their own - it would be a win, win.This issue is so tied in with bio-fuel issues. Making fuel from corn is still very energy intensive and takes space to grow, and draws from the international food supply.

Michelle
Michelle

I have to agree somewhat with Kimba about having reusable products vs. compostable products.While I understand the need to reduce the amount of waste that ends up in our land fills, we should also work on reducing our overall impact on the environment. As Kimba pointed out, to reuse plates and utensils in a public setting requires lots of water, industrial machines, and soaps and chemicals for disinfecting. Energy is needed not only for running the machines in the kitchen, but also to treat the water before it comes out of the faucet and after it goes down the drain, and to keep that water hot to properly clean the dishes. All of that energy? Probably not renewable (at least not a significant chunck), meaning pollutants are released into the environment. And the soap that follows the water down the drain? Sorry to burst your bubble, but even the best waste water treatment plants can't separate all the soap from the water, and studies have been done showing how this is affecting fish.So there are arguments to be had on both sides. Yes, I know that a lot of energy probably goes into making the compostable utensils, which ultimately end up in a land fill. But is the impact to the environment more than for companies to properly clean their dishes? Unlike in a home where you can get away with cleaning dishes once a day or less, companies which wash their dishes do so several times a day. That's a lot of water, and a lot of energy.Just something to think about.

Mary Hunt
Mary Hunt

Beth - I had purchased compostable wine glasses for a professional event and then the night before (as in the middle of the night) I realized I just couldn't use them. Two hours before the event I rented 200 glasses and I'm very glad I did.

lisa_emily
lisa_emily

Hi, even though I think compostable plastic is little better, I agree that it is not good enough. There is some very strange psychology that motivates our disposable culture, which I cannot understand. It is a laziness mixed in with a germ-paranoia. Case in point, my office: it has a dishwasher (so needing to wash dishes would not be an issue) and it has real plates, cutlery, and cups- yet most of the employees want to use paper plates, plastic utensils and styrofoam cups. I think for some it is just simply really bad, deeply ingrained habits to use disposables. For others- I think having a fork that another mouth may have touched freaks them out somehow. I cannot figure it out. I personally use the durable stuff and will rather use my hands than plastic utensils. I will not allow myself to even get a cup of coffee to go unless I bring my own cup. But it is disheartening to be around people, who are otherwise nice and decent, and yet stand by and watch them add to the plastic refuse pile- it kills me. I do try to subtly inject a little anti-plastic awareness into conversations- and also to let them know about environmental issues- but I need to balance this. I don't want to become the preachy-office-bore, because then no one will listen. I have made slight inroads, but it is very slow progress. Anyway, it is heartening to find like-minded people out there, and its inspiring.

ALMOST MRS AVERAGE
ALMOST MRS AVERAGE

Hi Beth - I have the same musings, especially in restaurants that have wooden disposable cutlery. On a lighter note, I have an award waiting for you over at The Rubbish Diet, with thanks for all the work that you put in and the inspirational message that comes with it. Please pop over when you're ready ;-D

Lynnet
Lynnet

I worked for HP for 16 years, and they had industrial china dishes and mugs, heavy-duty plastic glasses that were washed, and stainless steel forks, knives and spoons (cheap but serviceable). The only thing that got thrown away was paper napkins. No reason why Microsoft can't do the same. The capital expenditure of dishwashing equipment will pay for itself in short order. Meals are so much more enjoyable with real plates, mugs and utensils. I have a little set of stainless knife,fork,spoon in a travel pouch that I keep in my car. I take water with me in a glass bottle. We stopped using paper towels last year. My husband was surprised when the paper towels disappeared and a stack of bar rags appeared in their place, but he coped just fine.

E
E

Lest we all forget there are 4 R's:RefuseReduceReuseRecycleNotice that recycle is last and there are lots of things to do before we get there. Most important is refuse. Refuse to take that item into your life, refuse to buy it, refuse to use it.

luca
luca

hi Bethcongratulations for doing this challenge. I just published a post on my blog looking at a few blos of people following similar challenges to this one, giving up plastic. I hope you find it interesting and hopefully inspiring. I also invite you to leave your comments:http://www.mundomaterial.eu/?p=330

julie
julie

Great article! I've been suspicious of this compostable stuff. Also, it makes me bloody crazy that people who buy coffee every day (or pour it themselves at work) can't figure out to bring their own mug, or travel mug. Sometimes they even discount.Also, my local natural foods store allows me to fill my own containers, maybe because I tare them myself, they don't have to touch them. Otherwise I have to buy a jar from them, or use a plastic bag. Much better.

Robj98168
Robj98168

I have to say I agree with you beth, HOWEVER- I think it is an improvenment that restaurants ans others are at least switching to compostable items. The next step is non-compostable actual silver ware, cups and plates. Tully's coffee here in Seattle recently went to compostable cups, the first coffee house to do so (I still use my stainless steel wide bottom 16oz. Starbucks commuter mug- I have had it for over 10 years. And Boeing recently went to Tullys and kicked out starbucks. Although I don't know the exact reason they did this but I am hoping the cups are something to do with this. Now the down side of all this- everything is still thrown out the same old way. There are no COmpostable bins at Boeing, even though Waste Management is the garbage contractor in this area and it wold be very doable- They could be throwing there vegetable waste in there, and reducing their garbage output. WHen I mention this I am labled a radical. I have a dream the standard for all restaurant type places will someday to have compostable garbage bins in their kitchens- then actually do it. I know that at home my actual garbage is down 50 percent thanks to the yard waste bin that they allow compostables in.

The Green Cat
The Green Cat

Beth I hear you on this one. I did a post on this recently http://tinyurl.com/5fxguc We've become very cavalier about one-use items because they are "recyclable". But recycling something after one use does not justify using it only once. Thanks for this post!

Abbie
Abbie

Wonderful post. A few years ago, I had one of my students collect his energy drink cans for a month. He drank two a day, on average, so you can imagine how much that adds up to. Once the whole class looked at them all, we talked about where they all go and how much waste we all generate.It's frustrating because it seems that everything is working against us. But I feel like the best thing I can do is educate my students and be a role model by doing things like carrying my Sigg or reusable bags.

Small Change
Small Change

completely agree with you- and just wanted to say, i just read the article on grist featuring the take back the filter campaign :) you rock!

Clif
Clif

agreenfire - YES!Here in the condo building I live in there is a great fear of dryer lint!People are frantic that others remove their own lint...a material that collects from CLEAN clothes as they are dried. It is a tempest in a teapot, a huge issue over the terrible thought that one might be forced to touch someone else's LINT. Meanwhile other people's piles of damp clothes removed from washers pile up unremarked.My hunny bunny is frantic when leftovers stay in the fridge more than a day or two, or if uncooked meat from the store starts to darken she's ready to throw it out.I've pointed out that I am alive and well after a lifetime of eating leftovers left for weeks...but to no effect.What's a guy to do?

agreenfire
agreenfire

Great post. I think the biggest problems (which some commenters touched on) are germphobic Americans and Health Code Regulations. I agree that we need clean plates and silverware but I think a lot of consumers have an 'eww' reaction to anything that might have been used by someone before them. Commercials and the media teach us what a 'dirty' place the world is and how we need to be hyper aware of being clean, and keeping our food safe. I think before reusable plates, forks, knives, and mugs become the norm again, there has to be a shift in what we perceive as 'clean' and 'dirty.'

Clif
Clif

May this latest post of yours never bio-degrade! You continue to stand far above the rest as my favorite Berkeleyite. And, if anyone says "California" to me, your face and Arnold's immediately pop into my head!We like going to Panera because they offer mugs instead of plastic cups for coffee.At the Spice House where we buy our spices, they refuse to refill perfectly good glass bottles. You have to take yet another bottle (and plastic cap) each time you buy. Probably a health dept ruleIf something is truly biodegradable it should start to get gooey not long after exposure to water. I've experienced this with BD shipping popcorn. If it doesn't then (as was mentioned) it will just sit in a landfill.

Michael
Michael

I completely agreeI recently returned to Microsoft after a year's absence. The enormity of the disposables used in the cafeterias had always driven me crazy, and I wondered why they didn't just use real metal cutlery and real plates.I bring my own cutlery, plate/bowl and water bottle to work, but doubt I will ever convince many to follow me on this.Coming back after a year, I was very pleasantly surprised to see the plastics replaced by compostables. Better than no change, at least.As an earlier commenter pointed out though, there is a big problem with people just putting everything in the garbage regardless. I just noticed signs on the trash telling people not to put the plates and cutlery in there. So more clearly needs to be done...

Cheap Like Me
Cheap Like Me

I've been to several events where the disposables are compostable, but they're all going into regular trash bins. What's the difference when they get into an anaerobic landfill? I've heard that at the DNC, volunteers are sorting through all the trash cans to separate compostable waste from recyclable from "real" garbage. I hope that in the future we will look back at that low-tech technique and laugh. Or maybe it is a new political scheme to keep unemployment down. Our "disposable" silverware for outside meals is old spoons and forks bought at Goodwill. From our perspective it's disposable, i.e., if we lose one, we don't care. But if someone finds one, they could wash it and reuse it or just give it back to Goodwill. I ought to stalk the thrift stores for some nonbreakable ware to use for picnics, etc. -- we have a little, but not enough for a crowd.

Green Bean
Green Bean

I couldn't agree more. The whole idea of compostable is maddening to me! It's still all disposable! Sure, I'll pick compostable over plastic if I'm left without a choice. There's a new ice cream shop in town that boasts its compostable cups. There's another one, one town over, that offers its ice cream in the cone or in cute, reusable ceramic cups with real metal spoons. Guess which one tastes better?? There's just something about eating with real utensils and plates that makes life feel more real, more meaningful, more enjoyable, less . . . disposable.

David
David

I both agree and disagree with you on this...our grocery store just switched to these containers for all their "house" brand foods - salads, cheese, etc - so people that would never think of plastic vs. non-plastic don't have a choice, which reduces the plastic in our wastestream. It's hard to get everyone onboard with not using plastic, and I like this as a interim solution.On the other hand, I hate seeing us switch from using oil to package stuff to food to package stuff; seems making people bring their own containers is the only way to go.Solutions sure are slow-moving, and people are hard to change, so I don't have that much of an issue with this stuff for now. But would like to see it go away as well!

Ellen Halloran
Ellen Halloran

What this country needs, no, what the entire world needs , is basic education on the issues of production, recycling, composting, and ecology. If only these ideas could be seriously addressed in elementary education - by teachers who have a wide understanding of the issues - there would be hope for the future of earth. I would like to see a serious curriculum developed that is not underwritten by Dow, Microsoft, or Monsanto or any other partisan manufacturer who sees a new market in these ideas.In the meantime I am daily inspired by blogs such as Fake Plastic Fish and the individual efforts I read about here that are beginning to make a difference in people's thinking. Thanks Beth!Ellen Halloran

MamaBird
MamaBird

LOVE this post. So right on.

Nimic
Nimic

We have a cafe upstairs, and whenever I eat there, I show up with the same cardboard tray and Styrofoam cup. They always offer me new ones, and I have to explain why I don't want new ones. I almost think they're afraid it's a food safety issue for them.Very confusing.

kimba
kimba

Hi there - I've never commented before. Love your blog.I owned a restaurant for a bunch of years. We used regular plates, glasses, silver, etc. - but I can tell you that in Virginia, where I lived at the time, the Health Department had a ton of extra hoops to jump through if you wanted to go this route: a commercial dishwasher, three sinks, adequate drying space, expensive chemicals, equipment and supplies - and they required an only slightly less elaborate setup for off-site catering. It's basically impossible in a temporary outdoor setting given the tiny profit margin most independent restaurants work within.I'm with you - disposables make me nuts, too, but as long as restaurants, event planners and caterers are faced with these requirements, disposables will be the default at a lot of non-formal (inexpensive) festivals, outdoor events and such, and also small sandwich shops and such. Now, I have no idea why Microsoft went this route. Weird priorities there.I think this needs to change - surely there's a way to make durables safe to eat off of that doesn't require so much in chemicals, water, money and space. It boggles.

MrsSpock
MrsSpock

I totally agree that durables trump "green" disposables. That's why I choose the Diva Cup over organic cotton tampons and cloth prefolds for my son over Seventh Generation or G diapers. By the way, I LOVE my reusable bamboo utensils as well.

A Slice of the Pie
A Slice of the Pie

Right on with all that you've said.I don't know what the compostable utensils and cups are really made of or what improvements have been made in the rate they compose. About six years ago my family and I attended a local earth fair. They had a vendor giving out sample compostable golf tees, since the little plastic ones are so bad for the environment. We took three, one for each big kid to do an experiment to see how long it takes to break down. Whatever they were made of didn't break down ever in our not-so-scientific experiment. You might be able to blame our methods but it really made me wonder if that stuff is any better.

Plastic Glass Supplier
Plastic Glass Supplier

Suppose I’m the enemy, being a distributor of disposables, but thought I’d make a point or two to add to your blog…Did you know parts of China are felling trees to create space to grow corn and bamboo crops to meet the demand for supposedly ‘green’ disposables which will ’biodegrade’.Most of the paper cups produced at the moment can be recycled into something else, adding this new biodegradable kind of paper cup with PLA lining into the ‘mix’, however noble the intentions, will create more waste than previously created with the oil based poly lined paper cups.If one of these PLA cups is put into a batch of ‘normal’ paper cupsfor recycling (and you cannot visibly tell the difference) the PLA will react with the oil based poly lined materials and ruin the whole batch of paper, making it completely non recyclable! So my advice is to question any company that states products they sell are helping the environment, and ask them if they have thought about what was removed from the land to create the space for their corn crops etc and how the product they produce or market is disposed of. What percentage of people do you think actually take their PLA cups home and compost them? Could you even tell if you were handed a PLA cup? I doubt most people outside the industry would know.Also PLA paper or plastic cups will not biodegrade in landfillThe west has spent years giving farm subsidies to farmers in Africa to help them create these crops and stand on their own two feet, now we are mass producing those same crops for fuel and alternatives to plastics, lowering the price as a result, and plunging these people back into poverty.

The Purloined Letter
The Purloined Letter

YES! Please spread this message far and wide. I'm disappointed that my favorite cafe just switched from washable china to disposable. When I complained (partly because of the environment and partly because it ruins the feeling of opulence that real stuff evokes), the management was defensive and said it was compostable rather than disposable. THOSE ARE NOT THAT DIFFERENT (especially when they all thrown in the landfill rather than a commercial composter)!

Burbanmom
Burbanmom

SO agree with you on this. The compostable stuff is neat and serves its purpose (like the festival you attended) but should NOT be considered a viable substitute for DURABLE goods.