Category Archives: Compostable Plastics

Finding Circularity with Single Cycle Packaging

Let’s look at the issue of plastic waste and how we can use the circular economic model to resolve some of the problems that we face, that’s ultimately spilling into our environment.   Some 300 million tons of plastic is manufactured globally each year and “plastic packaging” accounts for about 78 million tons of it. That’s 172 billion pounds of non-reusable, non-recyclable and unequivocally unaccounted for plastic waste. This includes items such as flexible packaging, films, foamed material, small items, contaminated material, complex/multi-layer applications and anything colored, where recycling and reusability are practically non-existent.  These are single use, single cycle, applications.  Also, there’s unanimous agreement that the vast majority of all these applications are destined for a landfill. And these are not the demonized landfills from days gone by; I’m talking about today’s modern landfills that are now energy generating power plants.

This discussion is not for the consumer, this is for the difference makers, the sustainability managers, the leaders that can make a difference. They’re the companies that, according to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), are to be held accountable for the post-consumer aspect of its products and packaging. I’m talking about companies like Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo, P&G, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, Mars, Unilever and all the brands under them.

companies

We all know, or the data tells us, that this is the single most common disposal method of all this material. It should also be known that waste-to-energy has proven to be one of our greatest resources for alternative energy.   Whether it’s an anaerobic digester, a bioreactor or today’s modern landfills, most plastic packaging is ultimately ending-up in a unique anaerobic environment that is controlling and converting biogas into clean energy. Some of these companies utilize the energy from landfills, yet they haven’t put the pieces together to figure out that the very trash that their products produce could be the feedstock for the alternative energy resource they’re already harnessing. Too often, the end-of-life aspect is ignored or swept under the rug with theoretical contemplations about disposal methods that simply don’t exist and senseless confusion.

Yet, nearly all 50 states include landfill gas-to-energy as part of their green energy portfolios. It’s recognized by the United Nations, the EPA, as well as dozens of Fortune 500 companies and government organizations that all utilize energy from landfills.  However, the dots just aren’t being connected.   I recently asked the Director of Sustainability for one of these 10 companies about this topic and they honestly said that they’ve never heard of such a thing and can’t imagine that we’ll ever get our energy from slowly decomposing waste. Yet, three years ago this same company won top honors by the EPA as one of the largest on-site green power generators because of its use of Landfill Gas-to-Energy (LGE) to power its manufacturing facilities! Seriously, why the disconnect between what companies are doing and what companies should and could be doing to think more circular? Imagine if you will, this same company implementing landfill biodegradable packaging and then using the energy from landfill gas.  This is true circular economy thinking, especially when energy needs will increase 50% in the next couple decades.  Without requiring any change to the infrastructures in place today and without modifying consumer behavior, these single use applications can be designed to cycle at a higher level.

I’ve heard the idea that plastics should be made NOT to biodegrade in a landfill because one day we might want to mine for this material. This is completely asinine and assumes that we’ll have a need to mine for this material within the next couple hundred years.  The reason being, plastic will eventually biodegrade, we just won’t be able to capture the gases produced if we wait too long. Instead, if these applications were designed to biodegrade within the managed timeframe of these anaerobic environments, for every million pounds of plastic waste that enters a LGE facility, it offers the equivalence of over 422,000 pounds of coal, 52,000 gallons of gasoline and more than 1100 barrels of oil, which is used to power homes and factories, as well as fueling vehicles!

The technology is readily available to make most any polymer application anaerobically biodegradable, or commonly referred to as Landfill Biodegradable.   The technology does not change any processing parameters, there’s no change in any performance characteristics, and it’s not expensive. In fact, for about the price of a Tall Cappuccino, tens of thousands of Starbucks Coffee cups can be designed to biodegrade in a landfill.   These multi-layer applications are not being reused or recycled, but they are going to a landfill. So what gives, is it because of the misguided concept that landfills are bad? Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the integral role of this disposal method that rely so heavily on; a lot has changed since the 80’s. In fact, you could say that we’re now diverting 75% of all MSW away from landfills, because the type of landfills that are being vilified are becoming obsolete – quickly.

A single loop system for handling our plastic waste is impractical, circularity does not mean singularity, there’s too much at stake, too much potential, and the infrastructure is already in place so there’s no need to implement Cass Sunstein’s “nudging” tactics to change consumer behavior. Besides, the fact that none of this material can/will be recycled is not because of consumer behavior, its feasibility and market demand, and it’s just not there. A company wanting to take accountability for its packaging needs to answer one candid question: What is the common disposal method of the application? Then, do what can be done to take advantage of this fact and understand the value in having our waste integrate into our waste infrastructures instead of working against it. The facts, the science and all the data, prove that there’s an enormous opportunity being overlooked.  I believe the circular economic model can work for plastics, but not if it’s simply a rebranding of the last 40+ years of rhetoric.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition – Not so sustainable

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) claims to take a material neutral, lifecycle oriented approach to packaging sustainability with a goal of enabling and encouraging a more sustainable economy for all materials. However, their recent opinion publication against enhancing the biodegradability of plastics is detrimental to the sustainable management of plastics after use. They also claim to have evaluated the use of additives that accelerate the biodegradation of plastics. However, their conclusions and information make it apparent that the only “evaluation” that was conducted was input from organizations that have a competitive interest to these technologies and will directly benefit from the falsities presented. The study was elementary at best and does not include the critical information to accurately evaluate the impact of a material or technology. The position of the SPC lacks credibility, accuracy and directly promotes misinformation to an industry already confused by green-washing and clever marketing.

Sustainability will only be achieved by evaluating the facts, educating the industry and making changes that are effective in real world situations. Unfortunately, many of the “trendy” ideas regarding sustainability are more environmentally damaging than our current methods and materials. This is exacerbated by organizations that promote themselves as sustainability experts and spread misinformation to promote a specific agenda. Often these ideas have a “feel good” aspect, so it is simple to sway opinion. Sustainability however is not achieved by following emotional response or by doing what seems to be right. Sustainability decisions must be based on facts, results and the current infrastructure.

Here is a factual look at the opinions presented by the SPC: Get the Facts

Connecting the dots between plastic waste and renewable energy

With the recent United Nations Conference on Climate Change, there’s a lot of talk about harnessing renewable energy.  Take a company like Unilever who’s committed to becoming ‘carbon positive’ by 2030.  Meaning, 100% of Unilever’s energy across its operations will come from renewable sources, in just 15 years!  Interesting, now let’s quickly switch gears and take a look at plastic waste and the sustainability efforts taking place there.  With the advent of Extended Producer Responsibility, brands and manufacturers will be held accountable for the post-consumer stage of its product.  What is the common disposal method for the majority of Unilever’s packaging and products?  Well, if we’re being honest and using the facts and data available, it’s all ending-up in a landfill.  Recycling comes in a distant second and composting and incineration are practically nonexistent.   However, considering this new agenda Unilever proposes, is this really a negative thing?  Not if someone can connect the dots.

Today, the bad thing about landfills is in name only.   Perhaps we need to start referring to this single most common disposal method simply as Bioreactors.  The vast majority of all MSW ends-up in “landfills” that capture and control the gases being produced in these environments and turning it into energy.  This valuable resource, Landfill Gas-to-Energy, is considered the most economical form of green energy available today, even when considering the costs of hydro, solar and wind.  Once converted, landfill gas can be utilized in many ways: to generate electricity, heat, or steam; as an alternative vehicle fuel; or sold on the energy market as a renewable “green” power or gas. All States in the U.S. (including California) utilize gas to energy as part of their green initiatives and companies like Mars, Dart, Toyota, Frito Lay, SC Johnson, Tyson Foods, Kimberly-Clark, Coca-Cola, Anheuser Busch, just to name a few, are already harnessing this energy resource.

If Unilever’s plastic products and packaging where designed for this specific environment, it could essentially power itself with the trash it produces.  Today, we have the ability to make plastic waste naturally biodegrade in these amazing anaerobic environments, Bioreactors.   The Recycling industry and the Compostable Plastics industry will continue to rail against this, but it’s time more companies rely on facts and scientific data instead of myths and emotions that simply coddle consumer’s inaccurate perceptions.  Today, and in the foreseeable future, Landfills/Bioreactors will absolutely play a major role in the way we manage waste and harness renewable energy.  The demonization of this fact is counterproductive to the goals being set.  The power is in the hands of companies like Unilever to see beyond the status quo and implement solutions that provide accountability and viability for itself and its customers.  Connecting the dots is the key to a sustainable future.

Are sustainability efforts appeasing the myth or addressing the facts?

A recent blog on LinkedIn caught my eye, “9 Take-Aways That Resonated From SPC Advance.”  It was about the recent SPC Advance Conference, a GreenBlue / Sustainable Packaging Coalition members only plus guests event.

“SPC Advance is an amazing opportunity to gather different members of industry, academia, and government together to share perspectives, knowledge, and insight into sustainability,” said GreenBlue and Sustainable Packaging Coalition Executive Director, Nina Goodrich.

Sounds good, right? The who’s who of professionals, the decision makers on the environment, packaging and creating a more sustainable future… Then, you hear some of the feckless rhetoric that emerges from this brain trust and it leaves you wondering if this is just an exercise in futility.

Kim Carswell of Target commented, “Bio polymers move packaging closer to petroleum independence as part of our move to a circular economy.”

Kathleen Sayler, Assistant Director of the EPA’s Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery says that currently in the U.S. over 30% of edible food goes to waste resulting in significant social, economic and environmental costs, and it is estimated that Americans waste 141 trillion calories of food annually at a cost of over $161 billion dollars. Food production accounts for 50% of land use, 80% of freshwater consumption, and 10% of total energy use in the United States.

These two need to get together for a come to Jesus moment.  Land system change is a major environmental factor and our existing use in farming is already having perilous effects on our environment.  Let’s not be too quick to jump into corn, sugarcane or potatoes as something that’s going to save the planet.  We should not waste food and our farming should be to feed people, not our insatiable appetite for plastic, it’s not sustainable.  It’s a recipe for our economy and ecosystem to go down the circular drain.

Walmart Senior Sustainability Manager, Ashley Hall, said that customers should not have to choose between products that they can afford and products that are better for them and the environment. She emphasized Walmart’s focus on selling products in recyclable packaging, and stated that the company has made packaging made with recycled content a priority.

There is no term more ambiguous than “recyclable.”  Take a walk with me down Walmart’s isles and I’ll point out all the packaging that will not be recycled.   Heck, we can just visit one isle; you know the one that sells all the trash bags, tinfoil and plastic utensils and foamed plates?  Next time, take a look at all the Great Value brand items, along with the other brands – none of it is being recycled.  Don’t even get me started on those crappy light-weighted plastic bags that have “Recyclable” on them – nonsense.  We need to start basing our actions on facts and scientific data, instead of propagated myths.  If you’re going to make the claim, prove its happening.  It’s long overdue that we separate facts from fiction.  “Recyclable” – theoretically, and that’s the problem.

Kim Carswell, Group Manager at Target stated, “Packaging is a gateway to our consumers.”  She continued saying that Target likes to give consumers alternative options for the products’ and packaging’s end-of-life instead of the materials having to go to landfill, and that Target is constantly asking how its designs influence end-of-life.

Personally, I’m not interested in trying to find a non-existent alternative option; I’m not a garbage sorter.  When I buy the product, I throw away the packaging. There is nothing more counterproductive in advancing our environmental position than the demonization of landfills. Landfills are not the problem; packaging simply needs to be designed for the most common disposal method. If that’s a landfill, let’s not keep making decisions on folklore and pretending this isn’t happening.   Landfill Gas to Energy is the cleanest and most inexpensive alternative energy resource available; it’s the byproduct of the biodegradation process that is coming from the natural breakdown of organic waste in this specific anaerobic environment.  80% of all municipal solid waste goes to modern landfills that control or capture this natural gas.  Perhaps it would make it easier on everyone if companies like Target took genuine accountability and made all their plastic packaging Landfill Biodegradable, because it’s not getting recycled and I’m not getting in my car and taking it to my local industrial composter 80 miles away.

Amy Duquette, Sustainability Project Manager at HAVI Global Solutions, which represents the packaging department of McDonald’s, said that packaging is the consumer’s last experience with the brand, and that experience should be as positive as possible. Through mechanics such as the How2Recyle Label, brands can empower consumers to do the right thing, in this case recycle packaging.

Regulations such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) are predicated on the brand/producer doing the right thing, not the consumer.  The experience being created isn’t positive, it’s downright misleading!  Think of all the plastic applications used at McDonald’s, the white cup, the lid, straw, utensil, packaging for utensil, condiments, all of it, IS NOT getting recycled.  It’s not happening, it does not exist, stop it.   EPR simply means producers will be held accountable for the post-consumer stage, not the consumer.  It does not say you need to recreate a new disposal environment or champion one over the other.  It starts with an easy question, where does all (minus the idiots who litter) the McDonald’s plastic applications end-up?  If you said a landfill, you’re on the right track.  Honesty is the best policy.  Now what?    That’s the path to accountability.

Al Metauro, President & CEO of Cascades Recovery, Inc. said, “Doing the same things and expecting a different outcome is insanity.”  He’s absolutely right; we’ve been beating the same drum for a long time and it’s not improving our situation.  These Goliaths of industry need to understand where these plastics will be disposed of and implement solutions based on that environment and, as Laura Koss, Assistant Director of the Federal Trade Commission, points out:

  • Be as specific as possible.
  • Make environmental claims clear and prominent.
  • Don’t make qualifications about those claims only in asterisks and in tiny print.
  • Be honest about what your product represents and does not represent.
  • In the FTC’s eyes, it’s all about what a “reasonable consumer” might think about an on-package claim.

It’s absolutely unreasonable to take landfills out of the equation. Today, modern landfills are energy generating power plants and the vast majority of all of our waste ends-up in this managed and profitable environment. Let me emphasize this important and critical fact: today, nearly every State within the United States (including Alaska) already implements landfill gas to energy programs and each of these States count that energy creation as part of its green energy efforts. This is already an infrastructure that is in place and it’s a proven resource.   Spinning our wheels to create more programs and new infrastructure such as for recycling, composting, incineration, etc. will bear a significant environmental and economic cost to implement.

A recent study, “Plastics: Establishing the Path to Zero Waste” provides the most comprehensive and informative look at plastic disposal today and the environmental, economic and social impact of landfilling, recycling, composting and incarnation. The only way organizations will truly reach sustainability with plastics is if they take a step back look at the entire picture and evaluate the facts.

Let’s stop promoting environmental fairytales, get the science and data to make decisions about environmental solutions that will have the greatest positive impact today and begin doing something productive. We must strongly evaluate concepts such as bioplastics, recycling and compostable plastics that have no positive impact to our environment; show me the data!!! It’s time for these Big Boys to put their big-boy pants on and take responsibility and accountability for what’s actually happening. Let’s get past trying to just make the consumer “feel good,” progress feels good.

Ithaca College bans disposable utensils from compost

Ithaca College bans disposable utensils from compost

By Faith Meckley — Staff Writer
Published: January 28, 2015

Ithaca College can no longer accept disposable forks, spoons and knives that are labeled as “compostable” into the compost collection bins, and all utensils must now be thrown into the trash.

Mark Darling, sustainability programs coordinator, said Cayuga Compost, the company that accepts and processes the college’s compostable waste, notified the college of the new ban and set a compliance date of Jan. 1.

The Ithacan reported April 9, 2014, that the utensils were not breaking down at Cayuga Compost, according to an interview with co-owner Mary Proctor. At the time, Proctor said Cayuga Compost had plans to test the utensils.

Bobby Seymour, compost operations and marketing manager at Cayuga Compost, said the ban at the operation currently encompasses all disposable plastics advertised to be compostable.

To address the problem, Cayuga Compost first confirmed that compost was being processed correctly at the facility, Seymour said, and then moved forward with obtaining samples from manufacturers and testing the cutlery.

“We’re putting them into our compost windows at different places, bringing them out at different dates and times, recording what the amount of degradation is, if any, and then putting them back in for well over the standard period,” he said.

The standard period Seymour refers to is 30–45 days, which he said is based on U.S. Composting Council definitions.

Seymour said the estimated cost of manually removing the cutlery contamination from Cayuga Compost’s windows was $21,000 for the year 2014.

“We came to the conclusion that unless and until manufacturers change or we can find truly compostable products that we had to make the decision to stop taking them,” Seymour said.

Both Darling and Seymour said this is an issue happening across the country, and Darling said he believes it is rooted in the lack of state legislation making a clear definition of “compostable.” Green Wave International Inc. manufactures the utensils used at retail locations on campus, like IC Square.

“They’re calling their product compostable because there isn’t a state law that says you can’t use the word compostable,” Darling said. “[Green Wave] misrepresented their product. A portion of their reason is it is compostable … and they’re saying that the whole product is therefore compostable, when in fact, it is not.”

John Calarese, executive director at Green Wave, said the product should break down in approximately 90 days. Green Wave’s website indicates that products will break down into finished compost in 120 days.

“Our product is probably the heaviest product out in the marketplace from all competitors involved,” Calarese said. “Our heavy, full-sized piece of cutlery will take more time to decompose because of the weight of the product, not the composition of the product.”

In response to Darling, Calarese said the product contains no plastic and is wholly compostable.

A study conducted in 2009 in Vermont by Green Mountain Compost tested nine brands of cutlery, eight of which were certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute. The noncertified product was from Green Wave, and it was the only product in the study that remained whole at the end of the testing.

Calarese said this test was old, and Green Wave has since earned BPI certification, which can be seen on the company’s website.

While Green Wave does have the BPI seal on its website, at the bottom of the product page in small print there is a specification that only their bagasse products, made from bamboo and sugar cane, are BPI certified. This does not include the cutlery.

Currently there are printed signs hung over waste receptacles reminding students and faculty to place the cutlery into the trash. Darling said his goal is to find a more permanent solution for the college by April 1, when event season on campus begins in full.

The ideal solution, he said, would be to offer reusable options to students.

“Whether it goes to the compost or to trash, you’re still throwing it away — that one piece that all that effort went through so you can use it once and throw it out,” Darling said.

For students who are motivated to find sustainable options, Darling suggested finding a personal reusable cutlery set to carry along. Such sets can be wooden, bamboo or metal. Offering personal cutlery sets for sale at the Bookstore, installing washing stations at places like IC Square for personal utensils and incentivizing students — similar to the discount received for using a mug instead of a paper cup for coffee — are all ideas Darling said he is considering with the help of students in the Resource and Environmental Management Program.

Junior Rebecca Newman, an Eco-Leader in REMP, said she thinks installing reusable utensils in retail locations will be cheaper for the college over time. She said properly marketing personal cutlery sets to students will be important.

“I think people need to think it’s cool to have this,” Newman said. “With the compostables, people feel slightly better when they use them … compost is great, but the even better alternative is to have reusables.”

Newman said educating students on the disposable cutlery ban and marketing reusable cutlery sets to students will be on REMP’s to-do list this semester.

Read original article here: http://theithacan.org/news/ithaca-college-bans-disposable-utensils-from-compost/

This is a good example of the need for more education in the area of sustainable plastics. It is important that products reflex the certifications that they get. Many times companies will get a product certified when the product that will go out into the market is different than what was submitted for certification. This is especially true in the compostable plastics products where the materials need to be rapidly broken down to meet the certification. This becomes a problem for the real world product because it means it does not have the physical properties needed to be effective.

The other side of this conversation is that many people inherently believe compost = good. For most of composting this would be an accurate belief as food and organic green and brown materials are broken down to create a rich soil. However, when using many compostable plastics (especially PLA) the end result is not nutrient rich soil and in fact what remains after a product meeting the ASTM D 6400 is of no value to the soil and can become toxic in high concentrations.

When it comes to the sustainability of our waste it will be required for all of us to increase our knowledge levels to understand the details of what materials are being used with packaging and what type of environment it will be disposed of in, and to make sure that the environmental claims of the performance of the product will in fact perform in the environment that the item will be disposed of in.