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Unwrapping the Complexities of Foodservice Packaging

At WasteExpo, experts will discuss the best solutions to mitigate and reduce packaging waste.

With increasing conversations around the environmental impact of single-use, disposable foodservice items, some cities are pushing restaurants to use less of them, or to at least switch to compostable products. Meanwhile, technologies leveraged to make compostable products are growing faster than the regulations around them, and there’s some confusion regarding what’s fully compostable and what isn’t. Science actually proves materials can be 100 percent compostable, but some researchers challenge the contention that compostable is always the best solution to mitigate or reduce packaging waste.

These complexities will be among topics of a panel discussion on compostable and recyclable packaging at WasteExpo, held April 23-26 in Las Vegas. Presenting will be Ruth Abbe of Zero Waste USA, Rick Lombardo of Natur-Tec and Minal Mistry of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Materials Management Program. 

One city making the move to utilize more compostable and recyclable packaging in foodservice establishments is Alameda, Calif. The city is implementing ReThink Disposal, a campaign to support restaurants in reducing their single-use items such as disposable silverware and straws. The plan is to recruit 100 restaurants within 18 months, and currently, eight months into the project, nearly 40 restaurants are on board.

“These practices are better for the environment and for the bottom line. And customers appreciate it when they aren’t given what they haven’t asked for and don’t want,” says Abbe. “One restaurant in our program that only provides straws upon request immediately saw a 43 percent reduction in straw distribution and in cost.”

Along with the voluntary ReThink program, Alameda adopted an ordinance around disposables. Plastic straws will be phased out and replaced with paper ones, and the only other allowable single-use items will be compostable takeout containers and aluminum foil.

“Alameda is located [on Alameda Island and Bay Farm Island] on the San Francisco Bay and impacted by sea level rise and ocean plastics, so we have to be a leader. We are hoping that by doing so, other communities can see they too can reduce plastic litter and impact to the ocean and increase diversion from landfill,” says Abbe.

There are ongoing discussions about how compostable plastics work within industrial composting and home composting systems.

“It’s important to understand the science and methodology that goes into testing and certifying products before they are brought into either system. And it’s important to understand the complexity of the compost process,” says Lombardo.

Special attention needs to go to understanding the difference between compostable and biodegradable. Biodegradation is when anything with carbon degrades over a period of time, but there is no definition of how long in what environment. Conversely, in an industrial compost environment, materials not only biodegrade but have to be completely assimilated in 180 days, says Lombardo.

“Meanwhile, people are calling things biodegradable or compostable that are neither, he says. “This is why ASTM standards are important. These standards are developed in a lab, and products with this certification have been field tested.”

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s materials management program has conducted a lifecycle study comparing attributes like compostability and recyclability to determine the environmental impact of each. 

The study is focused on answering two questions, says Mistry. “Are we making the right decision leveraging the current system, which is based on attributes? Or do we need to expand our thinking in order to understand how to reduce environmental impact?”

The lifecycle analysis is showing that attributes like compostability and recyclability don’t necessarily provide a full picture and that parameters like energy consumption to make a product come into play.

“We are looking at hundreds of research papers published since 2000 to determine where it makes sense to rely on these attributes and where it doesn’t and to determine how to proceed if it does not make sense,” states Mistry. “From our study [to conclude in late 2018], we hope to publish some guidance on when attributes are reliable and when they aren’t. We will also present on what parameters other than attributes need to be considered."

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