If you shop at grocery stores, pharmacies, specialty stores, or pretty much anywhere that sells goods, you have been beckoned to be a green consumer with promises that the product you’re buying is “compostable,” “biodegradable,” or “natural.” If you’ve purchased these products I am sure you have left the store feeling as if you have done your green deed for the day, maybe even turning your nose up at the consumer behind you who bought the tired looking tinfoil bag of potato chips. It’s ok, I’ve been there too. But, are we really worthy of the do good feeling we get as we dole out the extra $0.50 for our contribution to the environment?
In order to help you truly justify the extra expense for the environment, I have developed three questions you should ask yourself before you grab the product that appears to be the friendliest to mother earth.
1. Where will you be throwing the product once you’re done with it?
If you’ve watched a commercial created by a certain potato chip manufacturer you might be tempted by the brilliant illustration of a potato chip bag disintegrating into the soil to litter your “eco-purchase.” Or, you may, as an habitual person, throw the remnants into the nearest garbage can. Or, if you’re living in San Francisco, California, or Portland, Oregon, where Recology offers food waste collection separate from regular garbage pick up, you may throw the product in the composting (green) bin (we hope you do!).
Whichever disposal path you choose for your product, you are either doing your eco-purchase justice or, you’re simply cutting your good deed short. Compostable, or biodegradable products are only as good at helping the environment as the effort we put in to making sure they’re disposed of properly. So, if you are throwing your compostable products into the Recology provided green bin, or into an at home composting bin, kudos to you! You can breathe a sigh of relief that you haven’t simply paid an additional cost for your product to end up in a landfill, you are helping to complete a cycle and bring your compostable product back to the earth where it was once derived.
2. How, exactly, is the product labeled?
“Eco-Friendly” products have taken on a huge array of good feeling names since they have become popular on the market. I mentioned a few before, “compostable,” “biodegradable,” “natural,” or simply “green,” can lead a consumer to believe that the product they are purchasing is manufactured using no synthetic materials. But, sadly, this is only true for a handful of natural products you see on the market today. The truth is, a lot of the biodegradable products on the shelves are still manufactured using petroleum based substances. If these products are thrown into the compost bin they’re not being fully broken down in the composting process. For a product to completely break down, it must be labeled compostable, and be approved using ASTM standards. There are a number of policy related efforts underway to ensure products are being labeled correctly so we know where and how to dispose of them properly.
3. Is it worth your while?
I had to add this last pre-purchase checklist requirement in to the mix because of a personal disaster I will only share with you anonymously. I was recently at a meeting where they distributed “compostable pens.” As a tried and true pen chewer, I was happy to accept the gift and promptly begin to chew on the tip which almost immediately snapped in half, leaving me wondering if there was blue ink on my face as half of the room turned to stare at what had made the loud noise (wasn’t me!). Even though I had my original doubts as to how a pen could really pass as compostable (the tagline reads: makes more compost than regular pens! Duh), I decided that the integrity of the product didn’t really live up to my pen chewing habit standards. Compostable pens are, clearly, not worth my while.
So the next time you feel like releasing your inner tree hugger by purchasing a well marketed product, make sure you go through the checklist above. Purchasing compostable products is a terrific way to contribute to the environment, as long as it is done correctly!
December 15, 2009 marked a significant day in the history of waste management and recycling in California. The California Integrated Waste Management Board, after a 20 year run, held their last Board meeting in Byron Sher Auditorium in the California Environmental Protection Agency. It is ironic that the last meeting should take place in that specific auditorium because Byron Sher is the Senator that created the California Integrated Waste Management Board through legislation in 1989. Senator Sher was there to bid adieu to his creation, and regardless of your feelings about the ordeal, the auditorium’s energy was melancholy and reflective.
There are many sad things about the departure of the Board, but among the saddest is that there really isn’t much the State gained in removing the executive team and public hearing process the Board offered. In many peoples’ opinions more was lost than gained both economically and environmentally. Since the former Board members paychecks came from a special fund that is filled by industry through fees at landfills, there were no savings from the State’s general fund.
Even though there will no longer be a Board overseeing it, the charge of the California Integrated Waste Management Board, now the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (DRRR), doesn’t end with the Agency’s change in structure. The DRRR will still continue to lead us down the path toward zero waste in California. Strategic directives like reducing the amount of organics disposed in landfills, and pushing higher statewide diversion goals, will still be carried out by the staff that have been successfully plugging away at them for years.
Whatever the organizational structure, I’m confident that Californians will continue to do their part in helping to meet the ambitious goals the former Board members and Chairs have set for us.
Bye bye Boardie, I’m gonna miss you so; bye bye Boardie, why’d you have to go?
The waste world is perfecting one of the most natural biological processes that occur on this earth, Anaerobic Digestion, or AD if you’re in the know. I don’t know much about the human body’s digestion process, the extent of my knowledge goes something like this: I love food, I eat food, the food finds my belly and it’s digested there. Anaerobic Digestion of the leftover food waste that doesn’t make it into your belly isn’t much different from what goes on inside the human body.
I was lucky enough to attend a conference focusing on just this technology on November 17th. This workshop, hosted by the California Resource Recovery Association, brought together experts in the industry to discuss all aspects of Anaerobic Digestion. I was able to sit in on Scott Smithline’s presentation of Californians Against Waste. Scott started with a great analogy of AD as what goes on inside a Cow’s body. See laymen’s image below. Just like cow’s emit gas after digestion, so does AD, and that gas can be used to create renewable energy!
But, what really struck me about Scott’s presentation was the very important question he asked us to think about throughout the discussion. What problem are you trying to solve? What are your priorities? Whether you’re a developer, city or county, elected official, or someone who cares where their waste goes after it is pushed to the curb, this question is important.
These systems are great co-located at facilities that have multiple waste management functions. Another one of AD’s output is a solid residual material that is a great input for composting, and there is bound to be material like film plastics and sand and grit that can only go to a landfill. Placing AD at multi-faceted facilities limits the trucking of this material, which means less money spent on fuel and less greenhouse gas emissions!
If your goal is environmental and economic benefit, then one of the most important subsequent questions should be: Where am I going to put this thing? Existing infrastructure (read: transfer stations with sorting technology) and quality source separation collection programs with excellent customer education is a must! I’m going to bring us back to the human example for a second. Imagine your favorite deli sandwich, to go, wrapped in foil. Now imagine taking that first bite into the lunchtime goodness, only with the foil still intact. Instead of a post sandwich nap you’d be on a post sandwich trip to the hospital. In order for AD to work, and to get the highest energy value, consumers utilizing this technology must be cognizant of what they’re throwing in the organics bin (not to mention have an organics bin!).
Recology not only offers collection programs that educate consumers on how to separate their organics from other materials, we are constantly trying to find new ways to enhance our facilities to be more efficient and renewable. Keep an eye out; AD may be coming soon to a Recology facility near you!
Shakespeare, although talented and prolific probably didn’t have banana peels, coffee grounds, and cardboard pizza boxes in mind when he wrote Romeo and Juliet, but I have to respectfully disagree with William’s historic metaphor. In the recycling, reuse and resource recovery world, labeling is everything.
For example: I was recently on an airplane where I observed a very interesting recycling experiment. As the plane was landing, a flight attendant announced to the passengers that he would be collecting all garbage on the descent into Oakland. Perking up at the sound of garbage (sad, but true) I watched as the jovial flight attendant received everything from peanut foil wrappers to plastic cups, half-eaten sandwiches, and worst of all… aluminum cans. Following him down the aisle was his partner in recycling crime, another flight attendant tasked to collect everything recyclable. I watched as 3 or 4 people handed her water bottles and newspapers. Presumably, these people are conscious of where their “garbage” will be going once thrown into that white plastic bag.
Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I couldn’t help but think how the passenger’s habits would change if the flight attendant announced he would be picking up all “recycling, compostable materials, and finally, if I really have to, any non recyclable or non compostable items you may have leftover.” Ok, maybe the last bit is a stretch, but I have to believe that the general, unassuming public would change their habits if we just broke the word garbage down a bit.
In this era of environmental consciousness, companies are making huge investments to become more “green”. Imagine the difference the airline industry could make in consumer habits just by changing the way they refer to what is left behind after the passengers leave the plane. This is a great way to show the public that a company cares about the environment, and it doesn’t cost them a cent.
So, let’s stop referring to our leave behinds as garbage, and start calling them what they really are: recyclables, compostables, and landfill destined materials. With 2 million people flying on a daily basis, I believe the words will travel fast.