August 24, 2006
THE FORK MOVED ALL ON ITS OWN. Not much, just a slight twist, but it definitely moved. It was the summer of 2004 and I was standing in front of the Rasta Pasta booth at Reggae on the River, eating a hot dish of pesto. I'd left the fork stuck in the hot food while talking with a friend. When I pulled it from the pasta I found that the tines were warped into a claw shape. My plastic utensil had melted from the heat of the pasta pesto.
I learned the reason why from the Whitethorn School folks running the pasta booth: The utensils were biodegradable, made from corn. This was explained further when I took the plate and fork to the nearby complex of garbage cans for proper disposal.
A smiling woman sat on a stool amid the barrels and bags dressed in rolled up jeans and a grey Reggae T-shirt with bold letters on the back identifying her as part of the recycling crew. Her job was to direct festivalgoers regarding the proper disposal of their waste: cans here, plastic bottles and cups there, glass in another barrel and so on.
She explained that the large bag marked "plates and utensils" was destined for composting, one part of a plan to move toward a "greener" festival. While garbage duty was not the most glamorous job at Reggae, she was happy to be playing a small part in making the event waste-free and thus more ecologically sound.
The fork I used that day and the cups used to serve beer and soda were made from a plastic resin, polylactic acid, aka PLA, a material most often made from corn but also using other plant starches including potatoes and wheat.
Just about anyone you ask will tell you that bio-based PLA plastics sound like a great idea. With awareness about the relationship between petrochemicals and greenhouses gases at an all time high (along with the cost of gasoline), people see this new plastic derived from renewable resources as an attractive alternative to our dependence on oil.
Add in the fact that we are getting buried by an avalanche of plastic containers used to carry and hold this, that and the other thing. Around 25 percent of the material in our landfills is plastic.
The notion that bio-plastic is "biodegradable" would also seem to be quite a plus. The people who make the stuff certainly seem to think so. The word is embossed on the handles of the forks and spoons used at Reggae this year.
The use of corn plastic has grown by leaps and bounds since I first heard about it. Last year NatureWorks, a major player in the industry (and the company that makes the cups used at Reggae) signed a deal to supply Wal-Mart with clear plastic containers for produce.
In a press release Wal-Mart noted that PLA plastic will be used for 100 million containers per year and bragged that, "with this change to packaging made from corn we will save the equivalent of 800,000 gallons of gasoline and reduce more than 11 million lbs. of green house gas emissions from polluting our environment." They also pointed to PLA's "ability to provide a price stable product as the price of oil needed to produce conventional packaging keeps climbing higher and higher."
Could there be any downside to this picture of an eco-groovy plastic future? A closer look into the world of corn plastic shows that there are problems yet to be resolved.
One is a perception problem faced by the marketing departments for corn/chemical corporations like Cargill Dow LLC, owners of the NatureWorks brand. Targeting the ecologically-minded can be tricky since such consumers tend to distrust mega-corporations, particularly those who are turning broad swathes of the country into huge factory farms covered with a genetically-engineered mono-crop like corn.
Then there's that word -- biodegradable -- embossed on the fork handle. What exactly does it mean? We'll get to that, but first let's go back to Reggae.
"A Green Event"
Earlier this month, just before this year's festival I tracked down Patty McGuire, crew leader for the food operation feeding all Reggae volunteers. She orders "thousands of dollars worth" of plasticware to supply the volunteers and staff kitchens, and the dozens of nonprofit booths. Most of what she orders comes from a company called Cereplast.
When she mentioned that "all the plastic forks, spoons and cups are biodegradable/compostable," I asked what that meant to her. How exactly is the stuff composted? Admitting that she was unsure, she said, "I don't really know where it goes after it leaves my kitchen."
In a hurry to get back to preparations for the festival, McGuire offered the number for Cereplast for further details.
The number led to Cereplast Vice President of Marketing Russell Wegner, a bioplastics true believer who told me, "We're in the resin business," as he launched into a discussion of the potential for PLA-plastic as a substitute for almost any type of conventional plastic -- at least within limits.
The main limit: It melts when it gets to a certain temperature, a fact that is crucial in making it compostable. Cereplast currently makes plastics that will tolerate up to 155 degrees. "For something to be truly biodegradable, reaching higher temperatures tolerances is a challenge," said Wegner. "The composters want it to break down; the consumer wants it to hold up."
But what if the stuff gets sent to the dump instead of a compost operation? He concedes that, "depending on the temperature of the landfill, it could sit for a long time," but, he added, even if the product is not composted, "You're still buying something that's sustainable and bio-based that uses a renewable source versus fossil fuels."
This year's Reggae on the River was different from years past. For one thing, the festival moved upriver to a new site allowing more room for more people. It's safe to assume more people meant more to recycle and more trash.
The recycling/trash system was stripped down this year compared to the 2004 set-up. There were no garbage monitors and no bags for utensils and leftovers, just barrels for plastic, glass, cans and trash.
An onstage announcer declared, "This is a green event. Virtually everything is biodegradable, compostable or recyclable," but there was no sign that the thousands of forks, spoons and cups coming from the food court were being collected for composting. A look into the cans showed that the forks and spoons went into the trashcans; the clear PLA-plastic cups were thrown in the "plastic" barrel where they mixed with recyclable petro-plastic water bottles.
Where did the compost go?
What happened to the compost collected in 2004? I got a hint when I ran into Ian Sigman (left) of Mattole River Organic Farms on Bob Marley Boulevard, the main road through the new Reggae. Sigman was leading a recycling crew, a team of brown-shirted waste handlers who poured barrels full of bottles, cans, plastic and trash into large plastic bags to be hauled off on his biodiesel farm truck.
He told me of his own interest in composting Reggae green waste. Up until 2004, he had simply amassed the vegetable trim from the various kitchens and hauled it back to his farm for composting. Then, as he put it, a guy named Steve Salzman "weaseled his way in."
Salzman (no relation to political consultant Richard Salzman) had to inform the composting crew that "some kind of permit was needed for food waste." While Sigman was all for "guerilla composting," Salzman had a fairly elaborate plan for an onsite system.
Salzman is a waste management specialist who works for Winzler and Kelly. Calling from the engineering firm's Eureka office he explained that he'd volunteered his time in 2004 to come up with a proposal to deal with more than just kitchen scraps, He designed an onsite composting operation "to try to capture the compostable paper and post-consumer scraps. And P.B. and his crew had already ordered the compostable plastic that year and were making all the vendors use it."
P.B. would be Paul "P.B." Bassis, one of the main players in People Productions, producers of Reggae -- at least until recently, when he split off to form his own company, Infinite Entertainment. Among Infinite's clients is Julia "Butterfly" Hill, the world-renowned tree-sitter/environmental activist, who, post-Luna, founded the Circle of Life Foundation. One of Circle of Life's projects was a series of events called We the Planet, zero-waste gatherings demonstrating the potential for greener festivals.
When I spoke with Hill at this year's Reggae and later after she was back in the foundation office in Oakland, she allowed that she doesn't think much of disposable plastic forks and spoons, cups and to-go containers in general, not even those made from corn plastic since she sees the current methods of corn production as "out of balance" with nature.
She asks rhetorically, "Are we going to use the toxic petroleum product that's going to go out into a landfill and slowly and toxically break down? Or are we going to use a plastic that comes from corn that's genetically modified and coming from huge corporations that have no interest in taking care of the planet or the people on it?"
Her personal solution: "I don't use disposables -- period. I always bring reusable everything everywhere I go. That's part of my commitment to the planet."
Circle of Life also serves as a clearinghouse for eco-groovy festival methods through their Greening Events Guide, which recommends many of the things instituted in the Reggae 2004 composting program: monitors at each recycling station, onsite composting and the use of compostables, at least where appropriate.
Salzman said he understood that by implementing the Reggae composting plan he was "stepping on some toes," but he moved forward. After the food waste was gathered along with the compostable paper, cups and utensils, it was put in a large mixing vessel brought in by Andrew Jolin of Mad River Compost, the company that handles green waste composting for residents of Arcata. An elaborate aeration device was used to blow air into what is called a "static aerated pile," which, said Salzman, "made it get really hot really fast," a key factor when it comes to breaking down PLA-plastic.
"We had pretty good success overall," he added. "We diverted around 50-100 yards of waste, I can't tell you how many tons."
The corn plastic? Last time Salzman checked, "forks and the cups and plates shriveled up and got brittle. But they did not melt into the pile." Digging into the remains months later he found, "distorted, weird little pieces of plastic that were still recognizable." He noted that a mechanical turner would break up the pieces facilitating dispersal. He was not sure what ultimately happened to the 2004 compost, if it was spread around the concert location or taken to some farm.
Carolyn Hawkins, solid waste LEA (local enforcement agency) program manager for Humboldt County Division of Environmental Health should know since the experimental composting program was allowed under a research permit. What happened to the compost? She's not sure either since, "They never submitted the conclusions they were supposed to."
Andrew Dillon, top dog in Reggae recycling, knows. The stuff ended up in the community park in Garberville. Noting that the 2004 process was "really expensive," he explained another reason the experiment was not repeated. The Dimmicks, owners of the new site for Reggae, do not want onsite composting. This year's kitchen waste? "It went to the landfill, but it's not bad for the landfill -- it will decompose."
As to this year's corn plastic forks and spoons, they ended up in the landfill too. The NatureWorks plastic cups are another story.
Grocers and recyclers
I ran into Phil Ricord, owner of Wildberries Marketplace, lounging under one of the shade tents at Reggae finishing off a beer, which as he pointed out, was served in the same sort of NatureWorks cup used in the smoothie bar at his store. Noting that he likes it that "the cups go back into the food chain," he turned his over and showed me what seemed to be a recycling symbol on the bottom: a triangle of arrows with the number 7 in the middle. What does it mean? Neither of us knew.
Back in Arcata I stopped by the office of Mark Loughmiller executive director of the Arcata Recycling Center, something of a plastics expert. He explained that the "7" is a resin identification number denoting "other."
"That's where the recycling industry is having an issue" with the PLA-plastic manufacturers, he contended. He launched into a tangled history of the resin identification system. Reduced to basics it comes down this: The triangle of arrows does not necessarily mean the plastic can or will be reused. No. 1 and No. 2 plastics are pretty much the only grades that are effectively recycled. Nos. 3-7 are typically lumped together and shipped out to plastics handlers who send them to China and a fate unknown. (See Journal cover story June 5, 2003, "The Problem With Plastics.")
Loughmiller thinks adding PLA in the "other" category just confuses the consumer who falsely assumes the material is recyclable. It is not. Once it shows up at the recycling center, said Loughmiller, "It's trash."
Loughmiller sits on the board of directors of the North Coast Co-ops. His advice to the Co-op: "Go with the cheapest thing. The PLA sells at a premium, and the fact is, the [PET] containers they're using now are recyclable. PLA plastic is not designed for recycling; it's designed for composting. And it's biodegradable only under certain conditions. That's the kicker.
"They're hanging their hat on the public's environmental desires, knowing the public is not really educated about all of the side issues. All most people care is, `Oh, petroleum is bad; there's an oil shortage. We need an alternative, so let's buy this package.' When it comes down to it, it's all marketing. You've got a company with a product that's an alternative to petroleum, at least somewhat. They're marketing that point, but ignoring things like the energy inputs."
"We haven't adopted corn plastic," said Len Mayer, general manager of the Co-op. "Eco-friendly plastic or paper is a half step. It would be great if it was a solution, but there are still some issues. Ultimately the best thing is for people to reuse containers, for people to bring their own in."
Loughmiller's other concern is with the contamination factor. Since PLA can look almost identical to recyclable plastics, most consumers will not recognize it and will add it to their other recycling. If a bundle sent off for processing is 2 percent contaminant, the load will be rejected.
If you go to the Cereplast or NatureWorks website, you'll find that there's usually an asterisk next to the word "biodegradable." Their definition is based on guidelines set by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). They'll tell you the biopolymers will degrade in a certified "controlled composting environment," a municipal/ industrial facility with a digester that meets their standards. They even supply a map showing the nearest such facility in your area. There are none in Humboldt County.
Those plastic cups at Reggae? Since most people saw them as "plastic" they are currently part of the recycling material headed for Eel River Disposal & Resource Recovery in Fortuna, the company that handles the recycled glass and plastic for the festival. When I spoke with company president Harry Harden last week, he had not yet picked up the Reggae recycling and seemed unaware that the plastic collection could be a co-mingling of No. 1 petro-plastic bottles and No. 7 corn plastic cups, but he's not surprised.
Right: Comingled No. 1 plastic bottles
To the consumer, "Plastic is plastic," he told me. "They'll come in here and throw laundry baskets in with the recycling.
"If [the plastics from Reggae are] not too badly contaminated I'll just bail it altogether," he said, "but if it's heavily contaminated, I'll have to run it across my sorting belt and we'll hand pick it," separating the No. 7 cups.
Harden said he would probably add the corn-plastic cups to his "film-plastic," a mix that includes grocery bags and the like. "We send the film plastic to San Leandro and they process it to mix it with wood chips and make lumber with it, decking."
According to Mark Loughmiller, the co-mingled corn plastic will have to be removed from the recycling stream at some point. If Harden sends it to San Leandro, it will happen there. Putting it bluntly, Loughmiller said PLA is "trash," destined for the landfill.
"The Trex decking he referred is generally made exclusively from plastic film. PLA plastic would be a contaminant. The industry has a mechanism to separate the contaminants, but once they do, it's garbage for them.
"My attitude is to be up front with the residents, to tell them, `This is garbage' and make them throw it away rather than paying the freight to send it elsewhere."
Loughmiller noted that the PLA industry made a presentation at a recent national recycling conference and suggested that a system be put in place so that recyclers could accept PLA plastic. "They're argument was, `Yes it is a contaminant, but if you collect it and send it to us, we will make sure it's composted.' But we're not going to collect it and spend thousands of dollars to truck it to them."
Nevertheless, when it comes to the bottom line, Loughmiller does not seem too worried about the impact of corn plastic because it's not as toxic as much of the material that goes into the landfill.
"It has almost no weight; you can dispose of it and it's not going to hurt a damn thing. I'd rather spend our limited resources on getting batteries out of the waste stream or hazardous household chemicals."
Left: Reggae 2006, biodegradable fork in the trash.
Simply from the name of the local festival coming up in Eureka this Saturday, the Organic Planet Festival, you have to assume the organizers are striving for sustainability. This is the second such event sponsored by Californians for Alternatives to Toxic Sprays "celebrating a natural and non-toxic world."
Said Patty Clary executive director of CATS, "We've been going through hell trying to get our waste stream down. We've been trying to do the right thing, but there are controversies in everything you do."
For example, last year's festival followed one of Julia Butterfly's waste reduction tips by asking people to bring their own foodware.
"We told people to bring their own plate for the world's largest organic salad," said Clary. "We found out you can't do that."
After the festival the county health department called Eureka Natural Foods, the primary sponsor of the big salad, to let them know that the possibility of contamination made the BYO suggestion a no-no.
Karen Sherman is the volunteer in charge of procurement of supplies for Saturday's festival. She also works for the City of Arcata's environmental services department, a job that includes looking at trash generated during public events like those held regularly on the Arcata Plaza.
"There's a new law that states [events] over 2,000 people must show what they're doing to reduce waste. So we've been talking with event coordinators asking them to make plans as to what they're going to do: Whether they're going to try to go with compostable cups and dishes or what other kind of materials they'll have, whether they'll be recycling."
Asked where the material might be composted, Sherman suggested, "either backyard composting or at a commercial facility," admitting she was not sure about the logistics or about the laws regulating composting.
For the Organic Planet Festival she settled on compostables purchased through a local company, Gess Environmental. She says she tried to minimize use of corn PLA, "because of the GMO-related controversy around using corn. For the most part we went with bagasse, a material made from sugar cane. We went with the SpudWare for our forks and spoons thus limiting the PLA to our wine and beer."
She has arranged for volunteers like those used at Reggae 2004 who will direct people on what item goes in which container. "I don't want the beer and wine cups to get into the recycling bins," she said.
While she was aware of the potential for corn plastic contamination, she did not really know the fate of the material used at the festival. From talking with Christine Jolin of Gess Environmental, she assumed it would be composted. Since Christine's husband, Andrew Jolin, is the composter who runs Mad River Compost (and the same guy who aided in the Reggae operation), she figured it would be composted there. It won't. It's not that he couldn't -- legally he can't.
As Loughmiller explained, "Andrew, when he says he can do it, he has to be speaking technically. Legally he cannot recycle post-consumer food waste. That's one of his big issues. He can collect the waste from prep kitchens, but not the food left on the plate that a customer has touched. It's a health code issue."
Hawkins, the environmental health enforcer whose department oversees Jolin's compost operation concurred, "That is not waste that's allowed at the [Mad River] facility under his current operation agreement. They don't have a permit to do food."
Andrew Jolin spent much of the last 10 years collecting food waste, composting it and using it on his worm farm, then the law changed and he is not allowed to do so any more. He's still intent on seeking out a viable option for that part of the waste stream, and for bioplastics, but says the laws make it quite complicated.
"Because of changes in the rules, we've had to discontinue picking up [the PLA plastic] from Wildberries and others we were dealing with," he said. "The problem is that we don't have an established food waste program in the county, and because of the [small] volume we probably won't."
Jolin said he's been talking to a number of local businesses: Robert Goodman Winery, Footprint Biodiesel, HSU and others about collecting their bio-waste.
"We are preparing to a do a pilot project with the city of Eureka, Arcata and HSU collecting food waste. The Organic Planet Festival will be an advance part of that. We'll be collecting their food waste [and compostables] to characterize it: check for contaminants, see what volume you have."
And once it's analyzed? "It will go to the landfill."
Jolin is obviously passionate about the importance of composting and the potential for bioplastics. He worries that his plans will be misunderstood.
"This is all new, cutting-edge stuff," he tells me as he calls for the third time in the space of an hour. "I hate to see red flags go up on biodegradables. The Co-op has been questioning whether they should go over. One of the board members was saying it makes it hard on recycling because it gets mixed in. It's not really [a contaminant for recycling]. Down in the Bay Area the oil industry got together with the plastic recyclers making false claims against it. With the equipment they already use for sorting PET, you can easily remove the PLA.
"Let's get down to what's really important here: We can sit by and be like Ford and GM are with the hybrid [vehicles] and be way behind, or we can embrace this new technology and work on perfecting it. But if we just sit around and criticize it, it just won't happen. The other option is more polystyrene, more oil-based PET and other oil-based plastics, most of which are not recycled and end up in landfill. Let's face it: It's made from oil and that's the scourge of our civilization right now. [Bioplastic] is not a perfected technology, but companies like Cereplast and NatureWorks are putting a lot into it. No, it's not perfect, but it's going in the right direction."
After I spoke with Patty Clary from CATS telling her a little bit about what I'd learned about this complex issue she sent me an e-mail. "So, in your article, is CATS to be made out to look like hypocrites or dupes for buying compostable plastic?" she asked. "Actually, I feel pretty good about what we're attempting overall with our festival, and I'm not naïve enough to think that trying to do something won't stir things up...."
I wrote her back to say I didn't really think of anyone I talked with as being hypocritical on the subject of bioplastics. Most consumers seem woefully under-informed, but it's heartening that they are willing to try to do the right thing. The harsh reality is this: Even if your plastic is greener, it's still going to end up at the dump. As Harry Harden so eloquently put it, "Plastic is plastic."
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