Ask Eartha: Manufactured compostables no longer accepted at compost facility
October 3, 2014
I'm a restaurant owner and I've recently been informed that manufactured compostables will no longer be taken at the compost facility come Jan. 1. For the past year I've been purchasing expensive compostable to-go containers and because of this recent change, I'm making a switch to something less expensive. Does it really matter whether I buy Styrofoam or paper since neither one can be composted or recycled at the county landfill? — Anonymous recycler
Thanks for the question. You are correct that starting Jan. 1, manufactured compostables such as cups, plates, utensils and paper products will no longer be taken at the Summit County Resource Allocation Park's compost facility. I realize that this creates a bit of a conundrum for restaurants and other eating establishments as to what to use for to-go containers. You're probably thinking, "Why pay for the cost of compostable to-go containers if they are no longer being composted?"
Although Styrofoam might seem appealing for its cheapness, hard plastic or paper to-go containers are far better than Styrofoam. Granted, some will say when you take into account the life cycle assessment of Styrofoam versus paper, paper is worse because it takes more energy to make, etc. If you aren't familiar with life cycle assessments, they consider the entire life of a product, from "cradle to grave." In a life cycle assessment, one would determine the energy, water, materials and manufacturing processes used to make the product and not just what happens to it in the landfill.
Plastic foam containers contain benzene and styrene, which have been established as possible human carcinogens by the EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
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We must be careful, though, in justifying the use of single-use disposable products based solely on life-cycle assessments. For example, some people love to argue in favor of disposable plastic bags over reusable ones stating that the energy and water used to make the reusable ones are greater. This is not necessarily true, especially if the reusable bags are made of materials other than cotton and are indeed used over and over again. Besides, life cycle assessments do not always take into account the health hazards to humans and other living things.
So what exactly is Styrofoam? Styrofoam is a trademark name owned by Dow Chemical Co. It was invented in 1941 and first used in a Coast Guard life raft. Now it is exclusively used for insulation. Actual "Styrofoam" is blue in color and a hard, rigid material made of extruded closed-cell polystyrene. The Styrofoam we typically think of used for coffee cups, other to-go containers and packaging materials is not the same Styrofoam material that was created by Dow. Instead of Styrofoam, we should probably be saying "plastic foam containers."
The difference between the two is that plastic foam containers are expanded polystyrene foam, whereas Styrofoam is extruded closed-cell polystyrene. Polystyrene is basically a fancy word for a type of plastic that comes in many forms: injection molded, vacuum formed, extruded and expanded. Polystyrene foam is known for its insulating and damping properties. Thus, it is widely used for beverage containers and packaging.
So what makes plastic foam containers so bad for the environment and human health? Plastic foam containers contain benzene and styrene, which have been established as possible human carcinogens by the EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The chemicals from the containers can leach into the food it holds, especially when the container is heated up.
Another problem with plastic foam containers is that they never biodegrade. Like plastic bags, they simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces and are resistant to photolysis, or the breaking down of materials by photons. Furthermore, it can be detrimental to wildlife when ingested. Animals choke on it and it can clog their digestive systems. Finally, the production of plastic foam containers is energy intensive and uses hydrofluorocarbons, which damage the ozone layer and creates a large amount of greenhouse gas.
Although some places recycle plastic foam containers, it is difficult to do so because it requires very large quantities of the stuff. Plastic foam has a very low density and recyclable materials are sold and paid for by the ton. As a result many recycling facilities would rather not bother with the logistics of recycling it. However, you can take peanuts and other plastic foam packaging materials to the UPS store, which reuses the stuff. Fortunately, manufacturers are now making peanuts from plant-based material.
I understand that restaurants need to provide disposable to-go containers for their customers. I recommend looking for products that are locally made, preferably in the United States. Avoid containers that are lined in plastic and look for items that are made from post-consumer recycled materials. If you must use plastic to-go containers try getting #1 and #2 hard plastic containers as they are the most widely accepted plastics for recycling. If you use these, encourage your customers to recycle them. Another option is paper plates with foil. The foil is recyclable and the paper will break down faster in the landfill than plastic, with fewer harmful chemicals leaching into the soil and groundwater.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff of the nonprofit High Country Conservation Center. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com
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