An inconvenient truth about EPS foam versus compostable paper

Replacing EPS foam trays with compostable paper plates has become a major initiative for six large school districts in the United States, as I reported recently in an article, "Goodbye EPS trays, hello compostable plates." To justify the switch to paper from plastic, the announcement cited the "institutional" look of the EPS trays: Institutional like in "prison," or "nursing home" or "hospital?" Schools are institutions, right?

The changeover from recyclable plastic to compostable paper is being done in spite of the fact that none of the school districts that responded to my inquiry had any composting contracts in place. It was to be an "in-house" composting effort on school grounds.

Additionally, the cost of the compostable paper plates is higher than the EPS trays, but, as the article points out, the school districts were able to get the price of the plates down close to the cost of the trays. The perceived value of purchasing compostable paper plates—the "green" factor that seems to be inherent in paper that the "greens" reject in plastics—makes it worth the extra money.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC) never lets a victory go unnoticed nor an opportunity to bash plastics to go unsung. In the NDRC blog, Switchboard, two staff bloggers posted commentary on the decision by the Urban School Food Alliance, of which the NDRC is a "key non-profit partner."

The posts on Switchboard in response to this change not only reveal the anger that these people carry around about plastic, but also their lack of scientific and manufacturing knowledge when it comes to producing both paper and plastic products.

"Today [May 20], these dreaded plastic foam containers suffered another blow when six of the nation's largest school districts—with assistance from NRDC—announced they are ditching the annual use of 225 million polystyrene trays in their cafeterias and replacing them with eco-friendly compostable plates," wrote Margaret Brown in her Switchboard commentary.

A bit of news for Margaret and the staff at NDRC: Much of the raw materials that go into making these EPS trays are "natural." Granted, paper is "natural," as well, because it comes from trees. As she notes in her blog, "Polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic" (yes, it is a natural resource considered by some to be non-renewable, because natural petroleum deposits are finite) "that generally must be sent to landfills for burial" (because people like the NDRC and the Urban School Food Alliance refuse to recycle this valuable material at one of the many EPS foam recycling facilities near these schools), "where it remains for hundreds of years (like everything in a landfill including newspapers, food scraps, metal items, diapers etc.) "and releases pollutants that may enter air or water" (that is not true, as urban landfills are sanitary because they are lined with—o-o-o-oh do I dare say it? PLASTIC!—to keep the landfill from leaching and so that the methane can be drawn off and used for energy).

Margaret also notes that compostable lunch plates are "produced in a much more environmentally and worker-friendly industrial process" than EPS foam. I wonder when Margaret last visited a paper processing facility and an EPS foam processing facility so that she can make an informed decision before putting out this statement as gospel? I've been to both types of facilities in my career, and personally I'd much rather work at an EPS foam products plant.

Dart Container, one of the largest makers of EPS foam products, even has a program—School Foam Recycling - How to Create a School Foam Lunch Tray Recycling Program. But, of course, the NDRC and the Urban School Food Alliance aren't interested in recycling or in presenting the issues in an honest, scientific way. They would rather bash plastic with myth and hype while painting other products as eco-friendly without even acknowledging that both have their benefits and both can be recycled, and that perhaps plastic is, at the end of the day, just as eco-friendly as paper!

A quick Internet search of composting facilities in the cities where the six school districts are located shows:

  • New York City has 17 composting facilities within a 50-mile radius;
  • in Los Angeles, there are seven composting facilities within a 50-mile radius (since that school district likes to do business with vendors within a 200-mile radius, finding a composting facility shouldn't be a problem); 
  • in Chicago, there are 10 composting facilities within a 50-mile radius;
  • seven composting facilities are within a 50-mile radius of Orlando, FL (Orange County Public Schools);
  • Dallas has three composting facilities within a 50-mile radius;
  • and the Miami-Dade school district has two facilities.

However, according to Kerry Flickner, President of Foodservice Sustainability Solutions, there are no commercial composting facilities that can take the number of plates generated by these school districts, which he says is nearly twice the number estimated in the press release—closer to 500 million. 
"There are no commercial composters that can handle 500 million plates annually," said Flickner. "In addition to the plates, there has to be the proper carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, a balance of enzymes and microbes, or biodegradation won't happen."

The odds of the school districts saying they will compost "in house" actually being able to do so are slim. You need more than just paper plates and dirt--for composting to be effective, you also need nitrogen from food waste and grass. "If they don't do it properly, the components needed to properly compost the plates will create methane gas, which will stink up the neighborhood, and they'll get shut down," explained Flickner.

So in spite of the appearance of being green, the big question remains: Where will these compostable paper plates really end up? In a haphazard DYI composting pile behind the football field at the school? Perhaps at a paper recycling facility, like Los Angeles is currently doing? Or, will they eventually end up in a landfill where they will create methane gas, because the alternatives are too costly and environmentally unfriendly?

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