LIVING GREEN for Dec. 27, 2012

For Weekly SurgeDecember 24, 2012 

The compostable product conundrum

Serving coffee in a compostable cup instead of the traditional Styrofoam or layered paper cup sounds like an excellent green choice, right? Some coffee shops and eateries are offering a greener option for takeout - compostable products. They market themselves as a greener company for this reason and it sounds like someone like me should be really excited about it. Unfortunately, for our specific area, compostable products are not the green and glamorous solution to our waste problem as you may believe. 

Have you seen any receptacles labeled "Compost Only"? We rarely see receptacles that are labeled "Recyclables Only" in public spaces, let alone compost. So guess what? Anything you throw away locally into a regular trash receptacle will be transported straight to the landfill, which is in Conway. I can assure you that NO ONE in the profession of waste management digs through the trash to separate recyclables OR compostable products after you toss it.

While there isn't a way to recycle Styrofoam in our area, there also isn't a way to compost your cups or forks made from potato starch or corn. Don't get me wrong, I think switching to a greener product for any reason is a wonderful idea because it supports the green economy; however, it’s like a one-way street. You may have a compostable coffee cup, but if you can't actually compost it, then what's the real green point? If you were trying to reduce waste in a landfill, think again.

The only county in South Carolina that is composting food waste on a large-scale is Charleston. It’s the only commercial food waste composting program in South Carolina that is approved by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. A commercial composting facility has the equipment to set the right conditions to achieve composting of those materials. It takes high temperatures and specific exposure to moisture and oxygen for the process of biodegradation to occur. While you can compost in your backyard without approval, your compost pile will be small and not reach high enough temperatures to biodegrade one of those potato forks.

Here's another shocker: anything you throw away into the landfill will not biodegrade. Modern landfills are engineered to be airtight and items that you throw away do not rot. When I was giving landfill tours to children in my past life, I explained to them that landfills are like giant Ziploc bags. They have a plastic liner on the bottom and when closed, they have a plastic liner on top to seal in all the garbage. This design allows future opportunity to transform old landfills into green space. Landfills that accept municipal solid waste, which is a fancy term for regular household garbage, are classified under Subtitle D in the Resource Conversation and Recovery Act. One of the main purposes of the regulation is to minimize groundwater pollution from garbage juices and to regulate methane gases. According to the BioCycle/Columbia survey of this waste, the United States generates nearly 400 million tons of household garbage every year, 64 percent of which is landfilled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are about 2,400 landfills in the U.S.   William Rathje, a professor from the University of Arizona conducted the Garbage Project, where he dug into a landfill to excavate items that were thrown into it many years ago. Through the project, they found decades old hot dogs and newspapers in the landfill that were still intact, as if they have been entombed.

Something that's interesting is that the graduation gowns for Coastal Carolina University by Jostens are touted as being environmentally responsible. The fabric fibers are made from renewable, managed forests and are biodegradable fabric. Sounds like we should all be celebrating, right? Wait, before you break out the organic apple cider, read the fine print about the fabric from Jostens: Biodegradable fabric : In a laboratory test conducted by an independent testing facility in accordance with ISO 15985 and ASTM D5511, complete biodegradation was achieved within 15 days on shredded samples of fabric used in the Elements Collection™ cap, gown and hood shell. Accelerated testing was conducted under anaerobic conditions pursuant to the standards set forth above. Results in municipal solid waste landfills will vary depending on sample size and environmental conditions including temperature, biological activity and exposure to moisture and oxygen.

Sorry to be the bearer of reality when it comes to disposing of your trash, but it just seems a bit backwards to me. The idea of producing and distributing compostable products is only as great as the end system allows. Unfortunately, in our area, our system is limited to only two waste stream choices: trash and recycling. Composting is only the option for yard waste, nothing more. So, even though you can't expect your graduation gown or potato starch coffee cup to rot right now, you can only hope that one day the rest of the waste disposal system will evolve to catch up to the final destination of such compostable products.

Jennifer Sellers is the sustainability coordinator at Coastal Carolina University and offers her eco-views at her blog, mygreenglasses.com. Contact her at jen@mygreenglasses.com.

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