The Café Near You Might Be Using 'Green' Plastic. Is That an Oxymoron?
A new breed of takeout container is showing up in restaurants and coffee shops -- and most likely, you’ve noticed. Marked with loud green stripes and all-cap claims like “100% compostable” or “made from renewable resources,” these products aggressively present themselves as earth-friendlier alternatives to traditional throwaways. The food service industry calls them “sustainable disposables,” and they’re coming to your favorite café counter (if they aren’t there already).
I’ve found them at San Francisco’s iconic Blue Bottle Coffee and Rick Bayless’s Chicago eateries. Brooklyn Brewery plastic cups, available online and served in bars throughout New York City, read: “Hello. I’m made of plants and can be composted. Weird but true.”
When “green” cups came to my local coffee shop, TSpoons in Iowa City, trash cans swelled with thrown-out cups covered in feel-good labeling. You might wonder, as I did: how can a product designed for a quick, single use also make environmental sense? Is “sustainable disposable” as much of an oxymoron as it sounds?
Not according to eco-plastic companies. When I spoke with Claudia Capitini of Eco-Products, a Boulder-based company that makes “green” disposables, she cited a double rationale for her company’s sustainability claims: their products are made from plants, not petroleum, and because of that, they can biodegrade instead of breaking down over centuries in landfills.
So let’s look at each of those in turn. It’s true that most plastic “cold” cups (think the classic red Solo) are typically made from virgin petroleum, while paper “hot” cups (think your morning coffee) tend to be made from precious virgin hardwoods (see “Starbucks’s Quest for a Better Cup”). Both fossil fuels and forests are non-renewable resources (or at least, they’re resources that can be renewed only over centuries and millennia). So instead, Eco-Products uses plant-based plastics made from corn biopolymers for its cold cups, while its hot cups are made from sugar cane and bamboo. They’re still plastic, but the company’s argument is that it’s a lot easier to grow new crops than new forests.
But plastic made from crops introduces a new set of environmental problems. Food service suppliers don’t make their own plastic -- they buy it, wholesale, from a company called Natureworks. Natureworks is owned by multinational agribusiness giant Cargill; its plant-based plastic, branded Ingeo, is the only game in town for eco-plastic goods. That means the corn inside each “eco-friendly” plastic cup was grown with stiff pesticides and gas-guzzling combines. Still, according to Natureworks, “Ingeo results in 60% less greenhouse gases than the oil-based … plastic it replaces.”
The second argument for “green” plastic is that it has a better “end-of-life” footprint. Traditional plastics can be recycled, but they frequently end up in landfills, where they do not biodegrade, or tossed on the side of a road somewhere, where decomposition takes centuries. Worse, some plastics leach toxic chemicals as they break down.
Corn-based plastic is, in theory, biodegradable and, instead of being thrown away, can be composted for future use in farming, gardening, and topsoil. And though more testing should be done, Natureworks claims that improperly disposed plant plastic releases no harmful chemicals into the environment.
This is a promising premise -- wouldn’t it be nice if plastic cups would biodegrade, just like a stalk of celery? But the reality is far more complicated. As it turns out, plant-based plastic containers can’t actually be tossed in a backyard compost bin. Trust me, I tried. A 12-ounce cold cup made by Eco-Products and a takeout sandwich clamshell made by Natureworks stuck around for months in my compost pile with no sign of decomposition. I finally gave up and fished them out.
According to Eco-Products’s website, “home composting typically does not create the consistent composting conditions needed for our products, but commercial facilities can manage just fine.” True, except very few facilities in the United States can compost in such a highly controlled fashion. In San Francisco, where compost bins are ubiquitous and the municipal facilities are prepared to handle plant plastic, your corn-based cup will likely revert to dirt. But the vast majority of local community and curbside compost services, like GrowNYC in New York, will not accept plant-based plastic at all. It also can’t be recycled like traditional plastics. If there’s a #7 on the bottom of your cup, it could contaminate other kinds of plastic and make whole batches unusable. Commercial recyclers hate it for that reason.
So if it can’t be recycled, and it can’t be composted without difficulty, where does plant-based plastic usually end up? The landfill. Sealed up underground, it’s virtually indistinguishable from the other kind of plastic -- both remain forever.
What's the verdict, then, on “sustainable disposable?” Until major advances are made in both the source and ultimate resting place of “green” plastics, I’m going to have to vote: oxymoron. Too bad. It’d be nice to enjoy a morning coffee without two lumps of guilt.
Image: Shira Golding/Flickr