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April 06, 2009

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Beth Terry, aka Fake Plastic Fish

Now that I have my LunchBots container, bringing a container for leftovers and take out is even easier. Seriously.

The hardest thing now is delivery. I pretty much have given up delivery except for pizza, and even then I am very specific that I don't want that little plastic thingy in the middle.

Thanks for bringing up the issue of compostable plastic. There are all sorts of other issues with it... for instance the use of GMO corn to produce it.

Coccinelle

I have the same problem!

But my city burns all its waste, so it's even worst! (I think)

Tim Dunn

The Evolution of Biodegradable Plastic

Biodegradable plastic is plastic that biodegrades into humus when disposed of, due to the action of the micro-organisms that turn dead plant life into humus, the organic part of soil. The result is a rich and fertile soil.

There have been three generations of biodegradable plastic. The first was starch based plastic, PLA, almost always made out of corn. The second generation was oxo-biodegradable conventional plastic, and the third, the current generation, is biodegradable conventional plastic.

PLA, or corn-based plastic

PLA, or corn-based plastic, was the first generation of biodegradable plastic. It is still made and promoted by corporate giants that have huge financial and political power, such as the Dow Chemical Company, Cargill, Inc., and Archer Daniel Midlands, but it has many drawbacks.

It is billed as 'sustainable,' as it is based on food sources, primarily corn. However, if all of the disposable plastic products in the world were made out of corn, 150,000,000 tons of corn would be used to make plastic. Prices for corn would rise dramatically, and third world hunger would increase even more dramatically. There are currently 850,000,000 hungry people in the third world. If we imagine that condition worsening greatly, the result could only be a humanitarian catastrophe of appalling proportions. That is the real ramification of 'sustainability' in today's world.

Furthermore, PLA isn't a very good plastic. It imparts an off taste to water when used for water bottles, it melts when used as soup spoons, it's weak, and therefore items made of it are heavy, it has a short shelf life, and it often starts to decay before use, while still on the shelf. What's more, almost no recyclers accept it for recycling. In fact, recyclers dislike PLA and are trying to ban it, because it gets confused with more conventional plastics, and ruins their recycled plastic batches.

Even commercial composters have a limited appetite for PLA, as it adversely affects the compost batch as too much PLA makes the compost too acidic. One bottle manufacturer did a survey of commercial composters and found that 90% of those surveyed would not accept PLA bottles. Furthermore, PLA cannot be composted by home composters - PLA requires elevated heat beyond what the natural compost process generates to compost.

The state of California is promoting this product by limiting the use of the term biodegradable, and all synonyms for biodegradability to PLA, which decays within 120 days in commercial (not home) composting facilities. Unfortunately PLA decays so fast in an oxygen-free (anaerobic) environment (typical of landfills,) that it generates methane in landfills before they are capped to tap the methane. Generating methane quickly in landfills is undesirable because it is a potent greenhouse gas. If it is generated before the landfill is capped, it outgasses into the atmosphere, promoting global warming. (Click to see a video about using methane from landfills.)

Oxo-Biodegradable Plastic, the Second Generation of Biodegradable Plastic

The second generation plastic oxo-biodegradable plastic was very different than the the previous generation of biodegradable plastic called PLA, starch-based plastic, or 'spudware. Oxo-biodegradable plastic had many advantages over PLA-It was invulnerable to water, one might adjust it to the desired biodegradation rate, some products could contain recycled content, it could be recycled, it didn't diminish the grain supply, it was stronger, less expensive, and was made from an otherwise useless industrial byproduct, light naphtha. (Light naphtha is a highly volatile faction of crude oil that cannot be made into gasoline, diesel, fuel oil, or jet fuel.**)

This second-generation biodegradable plastic is little known in the US, but is is well established and widely used in Europe. Tesco and Carrefours, the largest grocery chains in the world, and in France, respectively, package their customers' groceries in oxo-biodegradable 't-shirt' bags. In fact, the largest bakers in Mexico and South Africa package bread in oxo-biodegradable bags, and oxo-biodegradable plastic is becoming common in India and China. The US is so far behind the curve on this, that it is a little embarrassing.

Oxo-biodegradable plastic doesn't biodegrade when deeply buried in landfills*, because it requires an initial phase of degeneration which required certain environmental factors-oxygen and one of the following three circumstances-heat, UV light, or mechanical stress-and because the subsequent biodegredation part of the degredation only works in oxygenated environments. These circumstances don't exist when deeply buried in landfills, so oxo-biodegradable plastics don't have any benefit for products deeply buried in landfills. Oxo-biodegradable products do, however, offer a benefit if litter is the primary concern, as they degrade in the presence of UV light.

The Third Generation of Biodegradable Conventional Plastics,
which are used in our products.

There is now a third generation biodegradable product which is the standard plastic we use daily, light naphtha based plastic, with an additive that will cause it to biodegrade without the need of heat, UV light, mechanical stress, or oxygen. This third-generation plastic is called biodegradable plastic, and it biodegrades when placed into the ground due to the action of micro-organisms naturally occurring in soil. We are now using the third generation additives in all of our products. It has all of the benefits of oxo-biodegradable plastics-it is recyclable, is invulnerable to water, some products can have recycled content, it doesn't diminish the grain supply, and it is stronger, less expensive, and made of an otherwise useless industrial byproduct. It also has the advantage of having the same shelf life as regular plastic, unlike PLA and oxo-biodegradable plastic, as it does not biodegrade until it is in the presence of soil micro-organisms.

Additionally, this new plastic will definitely biodegrade when buried in the ground in either aerobic or anaerobic environments, ie. in a land fill. Like PLA, this new plastic will produce small amounts of methane in a land fill if deeply buried, but not so quickly as PLA, and like PLA, it will produce small amounts of carbon dioxide as a result of the metabolism of micro-organisms if it decomposes in the presence of oxygen.

With this new generation of biodegradable plastic, biodegradation is delayed long enough that there is time to cap the landfills, so the methane is burned off or even used to generate electricity, as is being done in almost 500 US land fills currently. Like all of our products, this new plastic is recyclable and completely non-toxic to people, plants, and animals, and is made of ingredients approved by the FDA for food contact.

In our view, by using conventional biodegradable plastic we are following in the footsteps of the plains Indians, who used every part of the buffalo, the chief resource in their environment. We take an industrial byproduct that used to be wasted and turn it into useful packaging materials and other disposable items. Then the disposable items are turned into humus, to the benefit of the soil and the plants it nurtures. Waste gasses from the conversion process are then used to make electricity. We thus have progressed from wasting an asset to generating three benefits from it for people and our planet. -by Tim Dunn, posted online at http://biogreenproducts.biz

Tricia

I put a compostable plastic bag in my compost bin seriously 3 months ago. It still looks brand new! I see it every time I turn the compost. I cannot imagine one of these bags ever composting.

Cheryl - bathroom shelf

I'm glad I read this. I live in Seattle where we're required to recycle (yey, I've been doing it for over 25 years). And now the "clean green" can include food waste to include meat, fish and dairy. So, they're encouraging people to use compostable bags. This article and comments definitely give me pause. I can continue to throw newspaper at the bottom of the clean green bin and better yet, now that I'm doing more yard work, it all gets mixed up with the weeds.

David

I tried to compost a PLA salad container. 4 weeks later, in a full compost pile, it was still in full form. Didnt compost at all. And like Beth said, using food to make containers is just nuts.

Krista

I always wondered. It seemed too good to be true. But, Gaiam had some "biodegradable" plastic cutlery and it said throw it into your backyard compost when you are done. Hmmm...

This was very interesting!

Lisa

Well I have a life threatening food allergy that makes it where I only get take out from one restaurant so that really helps. Please we love the people that work there so we like to go eat there rather than pick it up, at least most of the time.

I do however take a container with me for leftovers. It's plastic but reusable.

Amber Strocel

I have serious qualms about using corn - a food crop - as fuel or packaging. Especially when you also consider all the chemicals used to grown corn conventionally. I rarely buy takeout for other reasons, but I don't see a really good solution here other than bringing your own containers. I'm not quite there yet, but now I'm feeling inspired. Maybe soon we'll all be doing it. :)

star trek voyager

I love your blog so much, and there are just some differences with others'. Hope there will be more wonderful things in your blog. Happy every day!

Anna (Green Talk)

I have my issues with PLA as well, not just with the fact that you can't find any one to compost it but the GMOs. I won't put it in my composter for that reason. I wonder if the products made out of leftovers of sugar plants are any better?

mother earth aka karen hanrahan

I think so many of us have asked that very same question what the heck do I do w/ this thing now ? or what is this stuff made with ? I like the idea of bringing my own containers. utensils and drinking vessels and appreciate the tenacity that some folks have of actually doing that - I also never knew about commercial composting until this past year...c

Justin JDOG Marks

Glad I found this discussion.. a few local coffee/sandwich shops are using this packaging now, and one even tells you how great it is that it's compostable.

Now I'm trying to be environmentally conscious, but only just realized not all plastic containers can be placed in the recycle bin here in Arizona. A friend educated me on this fact, as he is working on an eco-friendly startup company.

So I had the same dilemma. Home compost is not an option, and I can't recycle it so these packages are going in the trash for now.

I like that they are healthier to eat from, I guess, being BPA free, right?

My solution is that I just ask for a paper bag from these places if I get a sandwich to go. The crazy thing is they almost insist on giving me this big plastic (compostable) container lol.

Home composting

Though it's 100% compostable, you are not sure if it can decompose in a compost bin because some of products like this just only good for industrial composting and I know City's collecting a waste like this.

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