Friday, September 17, 2010

Are Compostables a Crutch When We Should Be Using Reusable

I was down in Atlanta last weekend and I had the pleasure of getting together with Becky Striepe, editor of and a fellow eco blogger.
Are compostables a crutch
Becky and I were chatting a bunch about the green blogosphere and our businesses, and she raised an interesting question / concern about compostables… one that I think a lot of the more liberal folks in the green space have.
She asked “I wonder sometimes whether compostables are a crutch for consumers who should really be using reusables?”
It’s an excellent question and given the fact that we (as Viv) are enabling businesses to purchase compostables at a discount, it’s one that we’ve definitely thought through.
Here are our thoughts:
  1. For most consumers using compostables in their home, our answer is yes – compostables rarely make sense. Just as there’s no need to use disposable plastic cutlery or plastic cups in your home, there’s really no need to use compostables either. Most consumers will save money by using reusables as opposed to single use plastic items or compostables. Really the only argument for using disposables is that it’s more convenient, and even this argument is tenuous. Is it really that much more convenient to eat with a plastic fork then to pull a metal one out of the drawer and throw it in the dishwasher once you’re through? I think the vast majority of folks would say it’s no more convenient and for the few that say it is, that extra convenience should not outweigh the increased cost of having to purchase disposables.
  2. For a few consumers using compostables for large events or social gatherings, our answer is maybe – compostables make sense sometimes. It honestly depends on how large your gathering is and what your appetite is for cost vs convenience. Example: say you’re having a big BBQ for 150 guests. Unfortunately, you only have enough plates & cutlery for 40 guests. Does it make sense to go out and buy another 110 ceramic plates just for the party? This definitely doesn’t make economic sense and it also doesn’t make environmental sense (the footprint of those 110 ceramic plates which are only getting 1 or 2 uses / yr is much larger than that of 110 disposables). You could try and borrow these items from friends, but that may be too inconvenient (you have to borrow from 3 different neighbors and send them home with dirty dishes?). You could also hire a catering service that could bring ceramic and metal tableware, but that may be too costly. In such a case, compostables are your best disposable option. On the other hand, if your BBQ only has 30 guests, you could just use your own items – no disposables needed. Sure it’s a little extra cleanup, but it’s also lower cost and a more enjoyable dining experience.
  3. For most businesses, our answer is no – compostables are not a crutch and they make sense for to go food. Food service businesses that focus on take out move through very high volumes of food, and as such they use large amounts of food packaging & tableware. When you’re delivering food and beverage to potentially thousands of customers a day, two problems arise if you want to use reusables for your to go packaging: a) most importantly, reusables are more expensive and if you give someone their two enchiladas in a reusable container to take home… it’s very likely you’re not going to get that container back. This, I think, is fairly obvious and is the primary reason why most businesses can not use reusables for to go packaging, b) secondly, many to go focused businesses are small operations with limited space and limited employees. Even if customers were to return their reusable packaging (or say if they just ate their two enchiladas at a local park and then dropped the container back off before heading back to work) it may not be economically feasible for a taco truck to wash & store all these returned dishes. (PS – if it wasn’t clear, we always recommend food service businesses use reusables for folks that are dining in… it’s cheaper, better for the environment, and a better dining experience for the customer).
So that’s our take.
What do you think? Should people be using compostables in their homes, at large events, or for their businesses?