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.