Tompkins Weekly 4-11-16
By Joey Diana Gates
Cayuga Compost, a local commercial composting facility, and Tompkins County Solid Waste both recently announced that, as of April 1, they would no longer accept plates, dishes, cups or utensils, no matter what material they are made from: paper, corn-based plastics, or other so-called “compostable” materials.
It’s no Aprils Fools joke; what many thought were compostable products are actually made of biodegradable materials, which is a different process, and do not break down into garden-quality compost, even under optimal composting conditions such as Cayuga Compost provides.
After reading the Signs of Sustainability article on Dish Truck, two GreenStar Natural Foods Market employees, Joy Mathews and Amanda Hersey, saw the natural pairing of the Dish Truck team’s efforts to create a durable dish service with their work to keep GreenStar’s waste stream and compost stream separate.
When they learned about the county’s change in its disposable dish policy, Matthews and Hersey started researching why compostable products are such a problem for composting facilities and worked to change the systems and educate GreenStar customers. Then they invited people from the Dish Truck project to join them in tabling at the market, surveying customers for their ideas on possible solutions.
Matthews has long been interested in materials handling and has been working on related issues since the late 1980s, when recycling became more mainstream. She notes that recycling and composting is more of a loop system while the disposable-to-trash system is one-way. As a master composter, she also remembers when “compostables” first hit the market. She and other composters quickly discovered that these products do not break down in small home compost piles. These products require prolonged high heat composting only provides at industrial facilities.
However, as the market boomed, companies began making biodegradable products and/or products that had parts that were compostable and parts that weren’t, like plastic coatings inside disposable soup bowls. Hence, they did not fully decompose even under “ideal” conditions, leaving a film behind in the piles. As Matthews notes, not enough research was done prior to these products being released, and without labeling standards customers were easily confused.
Hersey, who has been with GreenStar for two years, grew up in nearby Harford, the daughter of wildlife rehabilitators. She remembers doing roadside cleanups with her family in the spring around Earth Day. While a student at TC3 she was a member of Students Acting for a Greener Earth (SAGE). So it’s part of her DNA to think deeply about what many of us take for granted as we toss our disposables.
Amanda Hersey, left, and Joy Mathews of GreenStar Natural Foods Market display leftover materials from a commercial composting site. The utensils had been held in a commercial composting facility at 160 degrees for 18 months.
Hersey thinks we are moving in the right direction with more recycling and more composting. But she also appreciates the need for good legislation to make sure labels accurately identify the materials in recyclable items and clearly distinguish between “biodegradable” and truly compostable materials. And this turns out to be the main problem with sending food containers to compost facilities.
Biodegradable means that a material will eventually break down physically into smaller pieces. However, this does not mean it becomes soil-enriching material such as a true composting process produces. Many products that break down are partially made of plastic that doesn’t stop being plastic for hundreds of years. And micro-plastics often contain hormone disruptors that contaminate the compost, killing organisms such as worms who eat these very small pieces of plastic.
Aside from biodegradable materials potentially being toxic and compostable material often not breaking down well, an even greater problem is that people find it very hard to decide which utensils are made from plants and which are made of plastic: Which paper plates can decompose? Which cups and dishes have coatings that inhibit decomposition or are even toxic? Plus many people find “recyclable” vs. “compostable” confusing. Thus many plastic and plastic-coated dishes were being put in compost bins.
To offset the increase in landfill waste this new composting policy creates, GreenStar is now providing recyclable plastic containers for the deli’s hot and cold bars. But many of these dishes will end up in the trash, and even the ones that do get recycled will be “down-cycled” into products that also eventually end up in the trash stream.
The answer lies in refusing disposables altogether. GreenStar and Dish Truck are both working to offer re-usable dishes that are returned for washing and then re-use. After filling your plate at GreenStar’s buffet, the cashier will take the weight of the plate off the price calculation. GreenStar is also exploring Incentives to encourage patrons to bring our own dishes, much like we can bring our own containers for purchases from the bulk section.
“Even though the compost guideline changes may feel like a step back, I think it will end up leading us in a much better direction,” Hersey says. “People are starting to be more aware of what they buy and how their actions impact the world…We’ll see new businesses and ventures pop up in this new niche industry, such as the Dish Truck. I think that will be a wonderful thing.”
The Dish Truck team, invites everyone who wants to help create a system for replacing disposable products with durable dishware to join us in making this happen.
Meetings are held the first and third Mondays of the month at 4:30 p.m. A larger Open Space strategy-building session is in the works. For more information contact Joey at so*********@gm***.com or 607.644.5525.