Which 3 items in the photos are NOT compostable service ware (made of petroleum based resins).*
Is it compostable? Is it recyclable? You are not alone in your confusion.
Compostable service ware (cups, forks, spoons, bowls, etc.), are made of resins derived from organic source (primarily corn). Compostable ware breaks down in the composting process. “Traditional” rigid plastic service ware is made from petroleum resins and has been accepted for recycling in NYC since 2013. Earth Matter has requested that all disposable service ware used on Governors Island (GI) be compostable.
You may ask, “If recyclable service ware cups and forks are accepted for recycling in NYC, why not use recyclable service ware on GI instead of compostable ware?” Recyclable service ware, if not taken out of the food scraps bin, ends up in the compost. Petroleum products in compost do not contribute to health and soil fertility.
As you can see in the photos, compostable and recyclable service ware can look virtually identical.
The majority of people who come to GI do not have extensive knowledge of composting (or recycling). If they do know about the process, they may not grasp the fact that each recyclable plastic fork or cup dropped in the “food scrap” bins around the island must be removed by hand before composting the organics. As a result, a huge amount of disposable service ware (and trash) has been mixed in at the public source separation station food scrap bins during past GI seasons.
Last season, Earth Matter trainees, volunteers and staff collected from to the public source separation stations each day and brought these materials to our Center. Materials were spilled out onto the ground and visitors, outfitted with gloves, aprons and metal “picker uppers” helped with our “de-contamination sessions,” sorting out organic materials from recyclables and trash. The chickens and goats helped with identification!
It was fun and those participants are now able to tell others “which is which”. However, these “sessions” are very labor intensive. With the public season extended from 40 days to 120 days, this daily process will be overwhelming. We hope that accepting food scraps and compostable service ware will greatly reduce the need for these decontamination “sessions”.
What makes up compostable service ware? Since 2002, specifications and tests exist that scientifically prove a material will biodegrade, leaving no persistent synthetic residues. These specification standards are registered with ASTM international (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials) as ASTM D6400 and ASTM D6868 ASTM is a globally recognized leader in the development and delivery of international voluntary consensus standards.The Biodegradable Plastics Institute (BPI) was created to work with the compostable products industry to insure that manufacturers of compostable products meet these standards. BPI has been assisting composting operations like ours to insure that the materials we accept, can in fact, be integrated into our composting process. BPI has created a labeling logo for all certified products to make identification easier. Thank you BPI!
Are there any downsides to using certified compostable service ware? Some people are concerned that the resins many companies use are derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). When we asked BPI about this concern, a spokesperson replied “The GMO based compostable ware DOES break down in composting. Therefore we will certify these products. If you are concerned about the effects of using GMOs, you would have to ban all GMO foods as well as compostable ware, to address this issue”. Earth Matter also consulted Leanne Spaulding (NYC Compost Project Master Composter) at the US Composting Council (USCC) for guidance on this issue. “The USCC's Compostable Plastics Task Force, in conjunction with the Composting Council Research and Education Foundation, recently released a tool that provides analysis of the different types of compostble or degradable plastics and present other tools to help local sustainability leaders make product management decisions specific to their needs. The toolkit is not meant to provide a particular position on the topic, but rather serve as a guide through the world of compostable plastics." USCC fact sheet. Some compostable manufacturers, concerned about the potential far-reaching effects of GMOs, advertise that they do not incorporate GMOs in their products.
Earth Matter is concerned that using compostable service ware gives the message that if you throw compostable products into the compost bin, they will be composted. In fact, compostable products are NOT ABLE to be processed in the majority of small or medium sized composting sites in NYC. Breakdown of compostable resins requires consistently high heat and moisture most often found in a large industrial scale composting facility. In NYC, if compostable ware is incorporated into the recipe, many small or medium sized community composting operations may find forks as “overs” in their cured compost for years. This is not just a NYC issue. The State of Vermont does NOT allow use of compostable service ware in their facilities because most facilities are not in a position to process these materials.
Earth Matter is experimenting with putting compostable service ware through our machines –the Jaylor Mixer and the Wallenstein Chipper Shredder , to reduce particle size of these materials before composting. We have had some good initial results. This preprocessing, however, requires petroleum fuel, and is time consuming. The majority of composters in NYC do not have these equipment or labor resources.
Another concern is the cost of compostable ware vs. petro recyclable products. While the cost has gone down for many items in recent years, in general, compostable service ware is more expensive. This is a burden on vendors, which ultimately trickles down to customers.
What is a solution to these dilemmas? Earth Matter promotes carrying reusable service ware as well as your water bottle whenever possible- “Bring Your Own” (BYO)!
While Earth Matter wishes that we all could be BYO, all the time, disposable service ware is a reality we cannot ignore. We do not take the GMO or cost concerns lightly. However, we considered that we are in a position to process the materials, what our labor resources consist of, the reality that recyclable and compostable service ware looks so similar and inevitably there would be huge amounts of contamination if both compostables and recyclables were promoted. Since our business is to make great compost, the need to reduce contamination rates requires eliminating confusion about “which is which”.
We requested The Trust for Governors Island (TGI), the not for profit governing body for GI mandate compostable service ware ONLY. TGI is on board with this DSNY funded initiative “GI: A Zero Waste Island”, requiring all vendors and event producers to use only BPI certified compostable service ware. Visitors will dispose of their service ware along with their food scraps at the public source separation stations located throughout the Island, and at all major GI event venues. Earth Matter will process all organics at our new Compost Learning Center location.
We look forward to seeing you this season! The Island will be open 7 days a week - May 24 – September 28, 2014.
*Key to photo quiz: The petroleum based items (not compostable) in the photos are: the “middle” fork, back right :“Pret a Manger” cup, front right: condiment sized cup.