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Does it make sense to use compostable containers even if there are no composting facilities nearby?

compostable food container
Good Start Packaging (Bedford, NH) thinks so. I don't.

My immediate answer to the question posed by the headline is, “No!” Yet, I ran across a blog post written by Ken Jacobus, founder and CEO of Good Start Packaging (Bedford, NH) that makes the argument that the company’s compostable containers make perfect sense even if you can’t compost them.

This first occurred to me when, after enjoying a great meal at one of my favorite restaurants, I was given my leftovers in a paperboard “compostable” container that had, “Hello Please Compost Me,” imprinted on the front. I thought to myself, "Great! But where am I going to compost this?” I don’t have a composting bin in my yard and I’m sure there is an industrial composting facility somewhere in Phoenix, but driving around in my ICE vehicle trying to find one may not be the “greenest” thing to do.

Good Start Packaging gets these questions quite often, said the company. In “Why Compostable Take Out Containers Make Sense Even if You Can’t Compost Them,” Jacobus writes that “like their plastic counterparts, even compostable containers don’t break down in any reasonable amount of time in a landfill.” However, there are “upstream” benefits to using compostable containers, even if they are not composted, said the company. First, “compostable food service products come from renewable sources,” such as corn, sugarcane, or paper. “Everything can be made again in nature,” said the company, “so we’re using resources at a more sustainable rate than petroleum-based plastic.”

I’d like to remind the folks at Good Start Packaging that natural gas and oil are also “made again in nature” and, thus, are natural resources that are continually being made on the Earth. Just as it takes energy to extract those things from the Earth, it takes energy to grow corn and sugar cane in planting, weeding, spraying for bugs, and harvesting using fossil-fuel-powered equipment. Paper from trees and various other plants also requires harvesting and so forth.

Second, the company points out that the corn, sugar cane and paper used in compostable solutions “don’t contain toxic chemicals used in many traditional plastics.” The blog then references chemicals such as benzene and dioxins, and notes that the company uses unbleached paper to make its products so there is no chlorine, which most composting facilities prohibit. Obviously, Good Start Packaging has not read up on the latest science regarding the fact that there is little danger of any harm to humans by using a polystyrene container to carry their food home.

The third benefit, according to Good Start Packaging’s blog, is that many “sustainable packaging solutions use less energy [in the production process] than their plastic counterparts.” Really? Studies have shown that plastics processing uses much less energy (as well as other resources such as water) than paper. The company’s blog uses the example of “PLA (the bio-plastic used for clear containers and to line coffee cups),” which the company claims “uses 68% less energy to make than traditional plastic.” Does this include the lengthy farming operations to grow, harvest and process the corn? Given PLA’s low melting point, I’m not so sure I’d want to put hot coffee in a paper cup lined with it.

Good Start Packaging isn’t very thrilled with recycling because, the company claims, it “is not a long-term sustainable answer.” The company’s blog said that 93% of all plastic . . . never reaches a recycling facility but ends up in a landfill anyway” (a staggering 28 million to 31 million tons). And, the blog noted, very little of what is recycled actually “comes back in the form in which it originated, such as a plastic water bottle.”

Actually, the plastics industry is making great strides in this regard and is implementing new technologies that can break down plastic into its original monomer to create new products fit for food contact. PlasticsToday writes often about these new technologies.

Good Start Packaging’s blog also denigrates waste-to-energy as a solution to plastic pollution. It is, in fact, a very good solution for two problems: Plastic pollution and energy scarcity in many developing countries.

Also, Good Start mentions recycled materials ending up on a container ship bound for China “where they are incinerated for energy, not turned into another plastic bottle as many people think.” The company must be unaware that China no longer accepts recycled plastic from Europe or North America.

The only reason I can think of to use compostable take-out containers, even when there is no convenient industrial composting facility in the neighborhood, is to greenwash the restaurant. Most people do not take the time to understand the science of plastics or paper manufacturing.

The next time a restaurant hands me a paper container that says, “Hello Please Compost Me,” I’m going to ask, “Where?” Maybe they will give me directions.

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