The Right Way to Go Green

Santa Barbara City College featured a report about a terrific program from that city’s Center for Sustainability. To reduce waste, the Center has partnered with the city of Santa Barbara’s environmental services to implement a post-consumer compost program.

Potato starch utensils, sugar cane to-go containers, and yellow compost bins are used throughout the Zero Waste and Awareness Program being implemented by the Center for Sustainability.

“Waste is a human concept,” said NikiAnne Feinberg, full-time coordinator of the Center for Sustainability. “It doesn’t exist in nature. I think of it as something that we haven’t found a second use for yet.”

She said the program tries to minimize the waste that goes to the landfill. It provides greater opportunities for participation and education on campus.

Nearly all the disposable stuff provided by the cafeteria can be composted, with the exception of plastic condiment cups and coffee cup lids. Marc Sullivan, director of food services, said that they are looking at compostable alternatives.

Identifying Greenwashing When You See it

In a recent story published by the Palm Beach Post, environmental marketing consultant provides some strong evidence of how to recognize and resist exaggerated green marketing claims that sound appealing yet do little good.

Scot Case of Philadelphia-based Terra Choice Environmental Marketing, Inc., said with the rise in ‘green’ marketing claims has come an increase in “greenwashing” – false or misleading green claims.

“When it comes to green products, buyers need to do their homework, and check out a company’s environmental track record, Case said. He advises looking for products certified by a qualified and independent third party such as EcoLogo or GreenSeal.”  Ed. note:  The certified biodgegradable logo from the Biodegradable Products Institute would be another good choice.

In 2007, his firm surveyed more than 1,000 consumer products making 1,753 environmental claims. All but one of the claims were either false or misleading, Case said.

For example:

• A dishwasher detergent boasts “100 percent recycled paper” packaging, and yet the container is plastic.
• A caulking product claimed to be “Energy Star” certified, but Energy Star doesn’t certify such products.

Case said the vast majority of companies are not following marketing guidelines provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Trade Commission and Consumers Union.

“The gist of the guidelines is that folks should be making specific, accurate environmental claims and should have substantial proof to back up the claims,” Case said. “It is a very simple litmus test that most companies are failing miserably.”

“Oxo-biodegradable films have more PR value than environmental value”

Speaking at the Emballage show in Paris last week, Hélios Ruiz, marketing director for Sealed Air’s European shrink packaging business, was quoted for saying oxo-biodegradable films had more value as a PR message than as a tool to bring real environmental benefits.

“Oxo-biodegradable film is not the answer. You need light and oxygen for it to biodegrade but in landfill there is neither.”

Ruiz goes is quoted as saying that Sealed Air has pledged to focus its green efforts on lightweighting its films as a solution to environmental issues.  “We are not going into biodegradable films, but focusing on source reduction;” he said. “We would rather make an impact on reducing the materials than have a communications story.”

The article summarizes that Sealed Air has become the latest major packaging player to express doubts over biodegradable plastics.

Our take is that manufacturers like Sealed Air are correctly focusing on source reduction, then considering the likely disposal method used by consumers. If left-over plastics packaging films remain dry, clean and can be economically taken to a recycling facility, then recycling is a much better option, then landfilling.

In this context, biodegradable plastics, such as bubble wrap, don’t make much sense, especially when they are landfilled.

However, what if you had a fast food restaurant with bins mixed with wet paper and food-soiled plastic utensils, plates and cups?  In that context, recycling is not possible.

Certified compostable plastics, on the other hand, are ideally suited for these applications where small amounts of biodegradable plastics can safely biodegrade in a professionally managed composting facility.  Tons of otherwise worthless trash is diverted from the landfill, and the organics are recycled back into a higher purpose (like humus or soil amendments).

UK Retailer Sainsbury’s Offers Compostable Packaging

According to a recent article from Recycling & Waste Management News, the retailer has teamed up with global packaging company Amcor Flexibles to use a compostable film in its ‘So organic wild rocket’ line of salad greens. The packaging will initially be trialled in 40 stores as Sainsbury’s aims to meet customer sustainability needs and help cut their household waste.  You can read the entire article here.

What we like about this is the fact that the retailer has clear and explicit instructions for consumers to dispose of the packaging in home composting or municipal facilities.  It clearly solves a need — since soiled and wet plastic packaging can not be recycled and can contaminate source-separated composting facilities.

New York Times: From Grey to Green?

According to a story appearing on the New York Times website, the famed ‘grey lady’ will attempt to go ‘green’ with new ‘biodegradable’ bags for its home-delivered newspapers by early 2009  (see: Cheap Green: Reusing Plastic Bags – New York Times).

According to the report, the bag begins to degrade in the open environment within a few months and within two to three years when in a landfill.

The story also quotes: “With this new technology, an additive is mixed with the plastic that causes the finished product to degrade over time, as it is exposed to oxygen in the open environment or in a landfill. In addition to being “oxo-biodegradable” the bag can be recycled along with any other plastic bags. The Times will be the first national newspaper to commit to using this environmentally friendly bag. “

Greenwashing?  Absolutely!

There is no data to support the claim that “oxo-bidegradable” plastics completely biodegrade in the anaerobic conditions found in modern landfills.

Further, according to a recent position paper by Canada’s Environment and Plastics Industry Council, very little biodegrades in a landfill, which is good because modern landfills are designed to minimize groundwater pollution and methane production because of uncontrolled biodegradation.  Plastic diverted to a landfill only adds to solid waste problems.

In the 1990’s, famed ‘garbologist’ (garbage + archeology)  Dr. William Rathje excavated perfectly readable, 30-year old newspapers from landfills, demonstrating that little biodegradation is occurring.  My guess is that a New York Times from 2009 (wrapped in the new bag) will likely be perfectly readable if exhumed from a landfill in 2039!

Rather than looking for a “biodegradable” solution, perhaps the money The Times is spending would be better spent promoting newspaper AND plastic bag recycling as a way to keep waste out of the landfill.