Last week we highlighted a major issue that eco-minded businesses are facing:
Plastic food packaging is preventing many of them from recycling more, composting more, and moving toward zero waste. One of the recommendations we discussed to increase your businesses waste diversion was to eliminate or dramatically reduce the size of your trash can.
Today, I’d like to go into more depth here on this issue and why I think this is one of the most powerful and under utilized tactics to increasing your waste diversion rate as a business.
4 reasons why you should eliminate or dramatically reduce the size of your trash can
Eliminating your trash will dramatically increase your recycling & composting rates. Why is this true? Well, changing a person’s behavior is not an easy thing to do. If unmotivated, people tend to do what they’re used to, what’s easy, and what’s comfortable. Most people are used to putting all of their waste in 1 trash can. So long as a trash can is available, that will continue to happen. That’s why you need to do something that will force behavior change. If you’re used to putting all your trash in a trash can and all the sudden there is no trash can… well, now you have to figure out what to do with that waste.
*ENTER OPPORTUNITY TO CHANGE BEHAVIOR*. Now you’re confused. You have a bunch of waste, but no trash can, and you’re looking for someone to tell you what to do with your waste. This is where amazing recycling and composting signage + trained employees are key. These signs & people educate you and tell you to put your recyclables in the recycling bin and your compostables in the composting bin. And as a result, you change your behavior and divert more of your waste to recycling and composting bins.
Cut down on your waste hauling costs. Many municipalities and waste haulers charge money to take away your trash. If you have less trash, then that’s less money spent having it hauled away. Further, some cities (e.g., San Francisco) offer businesses rebates if they shift their waste from trash to recycling & composting.
Save space in your store or office. Many of the small businesses we’ve worked with have told us that they have trouble finding space for 3 bins: trash, composting, and recycling in the front of their house. The simple solution – eliminate your trash can and move to a 2 bin system for recycling & composting only.
3-compartment waste containers can be hard to find. We’ve also heard this from multiple business owners. One of the businesses we’ve worked with, Rigolo, in Laurel Heights in San Francisco, CA had such a difficult time finding a classy 3 bin system that he eventually had to go forward with a DIY approach (shown at top of page), where he sawed holes into the lids of these bins. If you only need 2 bins, there are more options available and you don’t encounter these problems.
And we’re not just talking about food service businesses or retail…
Under desk recycle bin.
To throw something in the trash now, employees must get up from their desk and walk to the kitchen on the floor. Once at the kitchen there are then also composting and recycling cans available with signage encouraging employees to put items into the correct bins.My girlfriend is interning at Clorox in Oakland, CA this summer. She told me earlier this week that the Clorox green team has removed all the trash cans in every cubicle within the building. Cubicles now only have recycling bins.
This is a huge step in the right direction and a big kudos to Clorox.
3 Bin System in Clorox kitchen areas
If you think about the type of waste you have at an office, almost all of it can be recycled: copy paper, mail / envelopes, plastic bottles, staples / paperclips, packaging, etc. The fact of the matter is though, most of us are quite lazy. If you have a trash can in your cubicle, you’re very likely to take the easy route and just put all your waste into that one trash bin.
Clorox however has now forced employees to get up and take their waste to an area where they’re encouraged to compost & recycle most of their waste. Great work.
But what do I do with items that can’t be composted or recycled?
First, eliminate as many of these items as you can. Most should not have to be used daily. Restaurants and food service businesses can move to re-usables & compostables. Offices, as I’ve said, should be able to recycle the vast majority of their waste.
For the few businesses though that still have to use items that are not recyclable or compostable, I recommend having a very small trash can that is not easily accessed by customers or employees. For instance, Loving Cup, a rice pudding shop in San Francisco, keeps a very small trash bin behind their counter. This way customers must ask an employee to use the trash if they really have something that shouldn’t go in a recycling or composting bin.
But, aren’t our recycling and composting bins going to be contaminated?
This is a very valid concern. If you do eliminate your trash can, customers and/or employees are going to incorrectly sort their waste. Recyclables will end up in the compost, compostables in the recycling, and so forth. I have 4 thoughts on this:
Preventing contamination is the key, and as we’ve said before, good signage will go a long way toward preventing contamination.
It’s dirty work, but if you have the will and manpower, employees can sort through bins after they’re full and remove the items which are causing the contamination.
Recycling and composting facilities will resort the waste at their facility. These facilities have specific technologies and practices in place to sort through composting and recycling piles and minimize contamination before these items are processed.
The Greater Good must win out. In this case, we need to bite the bullet on increased contamination of our recycling and composting in the short-term, to enable the education of our citizens and a much larger diversion of our waste in the long-term.
With that, I call upon all business managers, owners, green teams, and others to eliminate or dramatically reduce the size of your trash can.
Let’s take out the trash for good.
*** Have you eliminated a trash can in your home or workplace? Share you story.
As you know, we cover a lot of innovations in the food packaging space. We’re big fans of compostables and all the innovation that’s taking place in that industry, but a new product is really taking the idea of compostable to a whole new level:
Meet Jelloware – an edible concept cup made entirely out of agar agar(a vegan gelatin derived from red algae that’s often used in Asian deserts).
The cups are designed by The Way We See The World, a New York based design consultancy. They’re available in various flavors to compliment your drink, including: lemon-basil, ginger-mint, or rosemary-beet. They are disposable and are meant to be thrown in the grass to biodegrade after you’re finished (and as TWWSTW points out, agar agar actually nourishes the growth of plants).
Now over the course of running the Viv Biz Club we’ve had quite a few folks ask us what happens if they accidentally take a bite out of a corn cup made from PLA.
The short answer is: “well, we don’t recommended eating PLA products, but you should be fine”. PLA is non-toxic and a small piece will simply pass right through your gastrointestinal tract.
That being said, if you have been looking for an edible cup, well look no further.
Georgia Pacific is claiming that their Perfectouch hot cups are compostable.
(If the print is a bit small, just click the picture to see the live version on Georgia Pacific’s site).
We know this is false for two reasons:
The hot cups are not certified by the BPI (the leading certifier of compostable packaging) nor is there any evidence that the hot cups meet the national standards for compostability, ASTM D6400 & D6868, and
The hot cups are lined with a plastic polymer, polyethylene (PE), and in a recent study commissioned by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition it was found that only 8.3% of commericial composting facilities that accept food packaging accept paper hot cups lined with polyethylene (vs. 80% acceptance for paper cups lined with a bio-plastic like poly-lactic acid).
These Perfectouch hot cups are unfortunately green washing and they do the entire industry a disservice.
UPDATE (8/3/2010): Viv Video | “Compostable Hot Cups – 4 Tips to Buying Truly Green Biodegradable Coffee Cups”
Food service businesses of all types have been using plastic containers with lids for decades. The containers come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and are used as: take out food clamshells, deli containers, water and soda bottles, coffee cups, personal care bottles (e.g., shampoo or body wash bottles), and a great number of food items lining the shelves of grocery stores (e.g., milk cartons, food trays for produce, yogurt cups).
Traditionally, these items have been made from petroleum, but increasingly a new generation of containers and lids are available that are made from renewable resources including polylactic acid (corn), bagasse, paper, and wheat straw. These materials can be used to make food containers and lids that are certified 100% compostable according to ASTM D-6400 and D-6868, and can thus be composted in a commercial composting facility.
So with that, here are:
6 Reasons to Switch from Plastic Containers to Compostable Containers
In the US, only ~6% of all plastic waste gets recycled. This compares with a 50% recycling rate for paper, 37% for metals, and 22% for glass (according to the EPA). The low recycling rate for plastic containers is due to a range of factors, including: a) consumer confusion regarding which plastics (#1 – #7) can be recycled in their municipality, b) complexity in the process of sorting and processing each of the various types of plastic, and c) the unfavorable economics of processing certain types of plastic. Some plastics do have higher recycling rates (e.g., ~24% of water & soda bottles, plastic #1, are recycled each year), but most are unfortunately downcycled into other secondary products like textiles or plastic lumber (this again is unlike metals and glass which are often recycled back into new cans / bottles).
Health concerns with BPA (in plastics #7 and #3). BPA is a common chemical used in the manufacture of plastic containers and to line some metal containers. It is found in baby bottles, water bottles, almost all canned food, soda cans. When these items are heated or cooled BPA can leech into foods and BPA has been found by some studies to be in the urine of 95% of Americans. BPA is a known endocrine disruptor and when in your body, it can mimic your hormones, eventually causing an imbalance. Several studies have linked BPA to medical problems, including breast and prostate cancer, thyroid disruption, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, hyperactivity, disruptions in fetal and infant brain development, and possibly miscarriages.
Health concerns with styrene (in plastic #6), also known as polystyrene or Styrofoam.From the EPA – “Acute (short-term) exposure to styrene in humans results in mucous membrane and eye irritation, and gastrointestinal effects. Chronic (long-term) exposure to styrene in humans results in effects on the central nervous system (CNS), such as headache, fatigue, weakness, and depression, CSN dysfunction, hearing loss, and peripheral neuropathy… Human studies are inconclusive on the reproductive and developmental effects of styrene; several studies did not report an increase in developmental effects in women who worked in the plastics industry.” The EPA has also not released a formal classification of Styrene as a carcinogen, but studies have linked styrene exposure to increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma.
Using renewable resources as opposed to relying on petroleum based products. The BP Oil Spill has finally been capped, but with it, we saw the “worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” Much finger pointing and blame gaming has taken place, but the most compelling piece of blame I’ve seen has been written about in the NYT, by Thomas Friedman, saying “The BP Oil Spill is My Fault”. Friedman quotes his friend Mark Mykleby in a letter to the editor written by Mark – “If we want to end our oil addiction, we, as citizens, need to pony up: bike to work, plant a garden, do something.” One of the major focuses of our country (and the planet for that matter) is on lessening our dependence on oil… and one of the simplest things we can do is to step up and stop using petroleum based plastic containers.
Increasing demand for composting access & curbside composting programs. There are ~3,400 composting facilities across the US, but unfortunately some research asserts less than 5% of U.S. communities have direct access to composting. We need to drive demand for more commercial composting facilities, for more curbside composting programs, and for increased diversion of food waste and compostable food packaging from landfills by municipalities. This can only be done if more people and businesses are using compostable containers and growing demand.
Prices on compostables are coming down. Traditionally, plastic containers and lids have been cheaper than most compostable options, but this is becoming less and less true. While Styrofoam (or plastic #6) is still the cheapest of all food packaging options, paper based compostable food containers has been found to be comparable in price to plastic food containers (download PDF file from City of Richmond). Containers and products made from bio-plastics such as PLA do tend to still be more expensive than plastic containers, but prices are coming down dramatically each year as production capacity increases, and other alternatives, such as group purchasing organizations(like us :-)) exist to helps businesses move to compostables at a more affordable rate.
Are you a consumer who has stopped using plastic containers or perhaps a business owner who’s now purchasing compostables? What made you switch?
First, Styrofoam is a brand name and is a trademark of the Dow Company. The scientific name for the material is polystyrene or expanded polystyrene, often abbreviated EPS. For the purposes of this article however, we will refer to polystyrene as Styrofoam.
Second, when we say that recycling styrofoam shouldn’t be done, by no means are we advocating that you purchase lots of Styrofoam and throw it in the landfill. Actually quite the opposite. What we mean is that you shouldn’t recycle styrofoam… because you shouldn’t be using it or buying it in the first place.
Reasons why you should never use Styrofoam
Your Health – The primary chemical component of polystyrene is…drum roll – styrene. Studies have shown that over time small amounts of styrene can leak into your food & beverage – particularly hot food and beverage. If you’re a frequent drinker of coffee for example, drinking 3 a day in polystyrene cups, you could consumer as much as an entire cup of ‘styrene’ over the course of a 3 year period. Styrene is also noted as a possible carcinogen by the EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer and studies suggest that it is a disruptor of normal hormone functions and may be linked to other hormone problems such as breast & prostate cancer (see GrinningPlanet).
It Pollutes our Planet & Water Systems – Styrofoam is a widespread, persistent environmental pollutant, which breaks down into tiny pieces which are often ingested by marine life and other wildlife thus harming or killing them; in some areas of the Pacific Ocean, small pieces of Styrofoam & plastic outnumber zooplankton by up to six times, which may impact marine life such as filter feeders.
Cost – Styrofoam packaging is significantly cheaper than other forms of sustainable packaging (e.g., a case of 1,000 Styrofoam cups could be half the price of a case of compostable cups). And this is the case if you look strictly as the cost you pay when you go to Costco and purchase Styrofoam containers, but this is not the case when you take into account the full lifecycle cost on the planet when you use Styrofoam. We need to start being responsible for the full cost of the things we consume and that includes the negative externalities on our health & planet.
“I didn’t purchase it, I just used it because I had no other choice.” Think about a time where you were given Styrofoam and had to use it. Did you really have to use it?? Could you have brought your own re-usable container or could you have asked for another container from the restaurant? Could you have run across the street and gotten a paper cup?
Recommended Alternatives to Styrofoam
Re-usables – Very simple – bring your own re-usable ceramic or glass cup / container.
Compostables – There are a variety of packaging products available now (both food packaging and other packaging) that are compostable. Look for products that are certified by the BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) and meet standards ASTM D-6400 and D-6868 for compostability.
So that’s that. You shouldn’t have to purchase or use Styrofoam… and if you don’t use it, you shouldn’t have to recycle it.
Kathleen Boylan from the Waste Reduction Store in Canada posed the above question in a recent blog post citing the lack of product stewardship in the compostables industry.
From Kathleen: “It would seem that the compostable industry simply expects that by developing resins made from plants, then manufacturing these more expensive products and certifying them as compostable, makes them inherently responsible and allows us to abdicate end of life responsibility while competing industries step up. We simply are not, defacto, product ’stewards’… we too need to step up and develop the infrastructures [such that] the waste from our profits ends up in composting systems.”
It’s a powerful point and one supported by many of the events currently taking place in the compostables space, including:
The lack of a standard certification for all compostables. Today a variety of certifiers exist across various regional markets, including: The Biodegradable Products Institute (the leading US certifier of compostable products), Cedar Grove (the largest composting facility in the US), OK Compost (the Belgian certification program run by Vincotte), Canada now appears to also be developing its own certification program, and more.
The lack of standardized acceptance of compostables across composting facilities. A recent study by the sustainable packaging coalition has found that not all composting facilities that accept food waste accept all compostable food packaging products (see chart on the right that shows the % of facilities that accept a given product if they accept food waste).
The green-washing taking place by certain manufacturers who are making false claims that their products are compostable (e.g., Taterware and Georgia Pacific), without providing any compostable certification to support these claims.
To address these issues and others, Kathleen’s proposal is that we need a Compostable Products Association to work with 1) compostable product manufacturers, 2) composting facilities, 3) compostable certification programs, and 4) governments to ensure the proper infrastructure and processes are in place so that compostable products are indeed composted.
Now my first thought was:
Well, why can’t the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), the leading certifier of compostables, perform this function?
After trading a few emails with Kathleen, I’ve started to see why the BPI (or any certifier for that matter) is not well positioned to this…
As we know, the BPI is a certification program that certifies products as compostable according to ASTM standards D-6400 and D-6868. The BPI is a non-profit, but it also makes revenue through its certifications. As such, it has a clear goal of continuing to support itself through the advancement of its logo and certification program.
The trouble with having a certification organization operate as the industry association is that they’ll be inherently challenged (and potentially bias) when it comes to working with other certification programs and adopting practices which are best for the industry (which includes the manufacturers, composting facilities, certifications programs, etc) as opposed to just doing what’s best for their certification program.
So what do you think?
Do we need a Compostable Products Association? Perhaps even an ‘International’Compostable Products Association to ensure that the infrastructure, processes, and standards we’re developing make sense across each of the world’s major marketplaces for compostables.
Update for 12/13/2013: We wrote the post below back in July of 2010. While trying to update a broken link, I found an event that was held yesterday between the EPA and Stadium Assoc. Great to see that efforts are still being made. Here is a current link to the event held yesterday between the EPA and the Stadium Managers Assoc. If you are a stadium manager, you should check out this link to the EPA's Green Sports for Stadiums, Events, and Leagues. A series of sports stadiums across the country have started composting recently (July 2010) thanks to the EPA’s Green Venues Program. The program helps major league & college sports venues green their stadiums and operations across a host of areas, including: energy efficiency, water efficiency, and waste reduction.
We’ve been particularly excited about the number of venues who have since kicked off composting programs. Here’s a shortlist of teams that now have composting programs at their stadiums / arenas:
The Cleveland Browns piloted a composting program in the venue’s kitchens last fall and will be continuing on in the upcoming regular season.
The Cleveland Indians also have a kitchen composting program kicking off this season.
The New York Yankees have a composting program in place and compost bins are available to all fans.
The Chicago Cubs are composting and have required all vendors at Wrigley Field to start using compostable food ware.
The San Francisco Giants have a composting program in place (and they better since San Francisco requires all residents & businesses to compost!).
The Oakland Athletics have a composting program in place.
The Seattle Mariners compost >20% of stadium waste.
And given the diverse crowds that typically attend ball games, this should translate into increased awareness of composting & composting practices across a very wide swath of citizens.
Are there other sports stadiums & arenas in your area that are composting? Let us know and drop them into the comments.