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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

New Wave Of Compostable Products Creates Recycling Conundrum

There’s a new wave of plastic bottles, utensils and plates on the market that appear to be better for the environment than traditional products, made from petroleum-based plastic. These plates, cutlery and bottles are made from plants, like corn, potatoes and sugar cane, and they’re supposed to be composted.

But what happens if they end up in recycling bins, trash cans or aren’t properly composted? In some cases, they could cause environmental problems of their own.

Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Here & Now’s Robin Young that in most cases, compostable products need to be sent to an industrial composting facility, which have higher temperatures and different breakdown conditions than you have in backyard composting bins.

“If it’s not going to go to a composting facility, then you might be better off using plastic cutlery made from plastic products,” Kershkowitz said.

That’s because if the products don’t end up being composted, could have other consequences.

Concerns Over Methane Gas

Hershkowitz said that most compostable products inevitably land in landfills, where they will begin to break apart. The problem is, they shouldn’t.

“In a landfill, you don’t want things to biodegrade, because when things degrade in a landfill in an oxygen-starved environment, which is typical of landfills, it causes the release of methane gases,” Hershkowitz said. “Methane is a greenhouse gas, 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide.”

If those products end up in your recycling bin, Hershkowitz warns that they will end up contaminating and disrupting the plastics recycling stream.

Plastic Made From Plant Waste

Hershkowitz says a better option is a new form of plastic, which is made from plant waste, instead of petroleum.

Pepsi announced earlier this year that it has already developed this technology. In March, the company announced its plant-based bottle, which is made from things like pine bark and corn husks. Pepsi says that the bottle has an identical molecular structure to traditional plastic bottles. Hershkowitz said that is an important breakthrough.

“The recyclying of the plant-based bottles does not contaminate or disrupt the petroleum-based recycling infrastructure, which dominates the plastics recycling market right now,” Hershkowitz said.

Pepsi will begin testing a few hundred thousand of the bottles starting next year. So in the meantime, what’s a consumer to do?

Hershkowitz said the best option is to use products made from recyclable materials.

“Recycled content eliminates the need for both petroleum-based plastics and for bio-based plastics,” he said. “So you want to buy plastic products made with the highest amount of recycled content you can find, and you want that bottle to end up in a recycling bin.”


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  • Amy

    Alan Hershkowitz is discussing important points about biodegradable plastics. However, he confuses ‘bio’-based plastics with ‘biodegradable’ plastics. Just because plastics are made from plant materials it does not mean they are biodegradable. it is the chemical composition of the plastic, not the source of the raw materials, that determine whether the plastic is degradable. Non-biodegradable plastics are made from plant materials. 

    • Amy

      oops, never mind, he just discussed it!

  • Conniejandrews

    what about interaction with the product inside the bottle? Has it been studied?

  • Kitchensink2001-green

    bring your own real utensils.  bring a container to put them in to take home and wash.  if everyone brought their own plates, silverware, etc, it would take a load off everything.

    • Rik

      Good one, @9d9cc96eb8b724f633890a6129156724:disqus . I was logging on to say the same thing.

  • Tom

    An increasing number of landfills collect methane that is produced in the anaerobic decomposition of waste such as the compostable plastic.  Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program to better understand this increasingly important industry — http://www.epa.gov/lmop/

    • Amy

      EPA’s assumptions about methane recovery have been brought into question by many outside of the disposal industry. Methane collection from landfills is actually quite harmful. Modern methane collection systems use methods to speed up decomposition (and therefore the generation of methane), yet only capture about 20% of the methane generated– the rest goes up into the air. As Alan Hershkowitz said, methane is 22x more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.  So methane ‘capture’ really adds more ghg to the environment, in a more concentrated period of time. The waste industry is working hard to overturn bans that some states and localities have that keep organics out of landfills so that they can generate methane.  They are also pushing for renewable energy credits for this methane, even though waste is not a renewable resource!

      But there are better ways to deal with organics–through composting and a low heat technology called Anaerobic Digestion (AD). The latter not only captures all of the gasses, which can be burned for energy, but creates a useful by-product that can be used to enrich soils.  Either of these ways of managing organic waste would avoid methane going into the atmosphere, and also likely reduce CO2 generation since compost and AD facilities might be sited more closely to the point of generation of these materials–trucks would not have to go so far.  

      • Tom

        20% is a very low estimate of the methane that is collected in a landfill that is equipped to collect landfill gas.  More like 70 to 80%.  Having an in-vessel anaerobic digester for all waste that can produce methane is incredibly capital intensive and impractical at the scale that would be needed.  Composting organics at a commercially sized operation creates a parallel system of trucks, collection, construction, and operation — all of which have impact on the environment no matter where they are sited.  Everything has its costs — it is not as clear cut as either Mr. Hershkowitz or you seem to think.  Yes, I am from the waste industry.

  • Virginia Lees

    Why don’t they add a little bit of color to our plastic products to indicate level of recyclable product as well as compostible product. They would make it easy for us to chosse products that fit our recycling bent as well as let us know what to do with these products. We have to make it simple for people of all ages. Virginia

    • Amy

      Because this could greatly effect the recyclability of the product.  Markets want specific colors of plastics. Clear plastics can be colored for various end-uses. If they come already colored, the things they can be turned in to would be more limited, and of lower value.  If the compostable plastics are colored, we’d need to be careful about what the color is made of so that it does not contaminate the compost– some dyes may contain heavy metals. 

      • Virginia

        Then I think the market could put a colored code instead of a symbol so that we would know which bin to put it in. They can even color the recycle bins the same color. I just think there should be a simple way for us to know how to dispose of all the stuff we buy. I agree, we should go back to basics and use glass. Also learn how to wash glass in a way that doesn’t use so much water.

  • Steve75apple

    I wonder about the enviromental cost balance between recycling and using “permanent” dishes and utensils. What is the impact of using too much water to wash dishes, burning natural gas to heat the water and also introducing cleaning chemicals to the water system? Is it still a better alternative to recycling?

  • suzie johnson

    how about just using, as my husband and I do, cloth napkins, washable plates forks etc.  we never ever ever use plastics…unless we hand wash them…I agree with the comment below…yes…bring your own….

  • dan

    I change my own engine oil in my cars. I use many 1 quart oil containers that have a #2 recycle symbol on the bottom. The recycling facility informed me these were not recyclable unless cleaned. I asked what to do with the hazerdous residue and they had so sugestions. I called Mobile’s consumer line. They said the plastic was not recycleable even if cleaned because the oil does something to the plastic. If true, why do they put a recycle symbol on it?

  • Tnt

    Glass Glass Glass Why is plastic even a question we need to get back to glass. Things look and taste better in glass. When they all (Coke especially) made the change from glass they stated it was cost effective to go to plastic funny I still pay more for plastic and glass cost less to recycle for all of us.

  • blfs

    if I heard the host of the show, how does she “know” that most plastics end up in the ocean?  that just doesn’t sound possible…

  • Medove

    very interesting show; I didn’t hear all of it as I was driving but I learned a lot that I wasn’t aware of.  I try to do my part in recycling and have often wondered what to do the the plastics made from corn products or the compostable paper products many restaurants are using.  Such a dilemma; and now I worry about using even these plant-based “plastics”.  I agree with other comments; we need to try to use glass and maybe even bring our own dishes to picnics and bring home to wash.  But what about, as others have said, to do about the water use, heating of the water, and the addition of soaps; I think that is still better than dumping everything in trash or recycling bins.  Reuse.

  • Linda

    I purchased kitchen bags based on the claim that they are made of biodegradable plastic.  According to claims made on the packaging:  it has a seal – UL, Environmental Claims Validated, biodegradable under anaerobic landfill conditions, typically within 1 to 10 years; proven to biodegrade using ASTM D5511; made from 40% recycled plastic; made with EcoPure.  Any problems with sending these bags to the landfill?

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