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It still isn’t easy being green

Being green
When a company replaces plastic packaging that can be recycled with compostable packaging that may—or may not—find its way to a commercial composting facility, how green is that, really?

A press release I received from Snap Kitchen (Austin, TX) announced with great fanfare and excitement the company’s rollout of plant-based compostable packaging, which it hailed as a giant, “green” leap forward. Snap Kitchen describes itself as an omni-channel retailer that provides on-demand delivery of healthy, ready to heat-and-eat comfort food.

The change from recyclable plastic trays to new plant-based compostable “eco-friendly” packaging was promoted in the company’s press release as “a step in reducing the environmental impact,” thus proving to its consumers the company’s commitment to global sustainability. The packaging will launch in 35 locations across Austin, Dallas, Houston and Philadelphia. By making the change from recyclable plastic to plant-based compostable materials, the company claims it will reduce its annual use of plastic by 500,000 pounds.

Snap Kitchen has partnered with World Centric (Petaluma, CA) to supply the compostable (many of which also claim to be bio-degradable) containers, clamshells, bowls and other products. They are made from bleach-free Miscanthus (silver) grass fiber, which the company says is grown “carbon neutral,” as well as from unbleached and natural wheat straw. World Centric products also include clear clamshells, containers and drinking cups made from Ingeo PLA biopolymers and sugarcane.  

World Centric’s web site claims that its products produce “zero carbon due to our offsets,” which supposedly offsets the carbon produced when plants are harvested and manufactured in an industrial process. World Centric also notes that its products are “100% compostable in industrial facilities” and are certified as such by the Biodegradable Products Institute and meet ASTM standards for compostability. “Our plant products are guaranteed to break down in two to three months in industrial facilities,” the company claims on its website. It then adds a caveat: “Please check locally, as these facilities are not available in all communities.”

Snap Kitchen promotes its “movement toward utilizing eco-friendly packaging” by noting that the energy it previously took to create one petroleum plastic tray now produces five compostable trays, thus reducing Snap Kitchen’s carbon emissions from packaging manufacturing by 66%. The company adds that these “one-time use containers can be easily discarded in a compost bin or included in a conventional garbage canister, as they contribute zero toxicity to the environment.”

Now, the debate centers around whether composting is a greener alternative than recycling. Commercial composting facilities are not available in all communities. I’ve also found out as I’ve looked into this issue that many commercial composting facilities will not take rigid containers, plates, cutlery and so forth made from plant-based materials because they do not completely break down within the time frame required. Most of the facilities I’ve contacted in doing research on this issue have said they limit their compost ingredients to yard/lawn debris and food waste. Also, there is no curbside composting pickup to make it easy and convenient for consumers.

Saying something is “compostable” or “biodegradable” doesn’t mean it will be accepted in the composting system. Biodegradability is another issue that causes concern about just where, when and how a biodegradable container will actually break down into pieces small enough that they cannot be observed in the environment. Sorry, folks, plastic doesn’t just vanish into thin air!

Recycling plastic has become a big business and there is currently a large, mostly well-established infrastructure in place in most parts of the United States for curbside pickup and transportation to the recycling center. Demand for recycled plastic to meet recycled content requirements for many products is high, meaning that the “circular economy” is in play. 

Additionally, any industrially manufactured product, whether it’s made from natural materials such as grass, sugar cane or wheat straw or natural gas and oil—also products of nature that come from the Earth—is going to require energy from fossil fuels. Offsets aside, strong, reliable, consistent energy is required in all industrial manufacturing processes whether it involves growing, harvesting and transporting grass or wheat straw or processing plastics from natural gas and petroleum to produce packaging.

Snap Kitchen couldn’t answer my questions about the new packaging they are implementing and declined to speak with me at this time, so I found the answers myself. Ultimately, claiming that “compostability” is a better “green” alternative than recycling doesn’t hold water. Composting is not really any more green, and probably less so when you consider circular economy requirements, than recycling.

The plastics industry needs to do a better job of educating brand owners and end users on the science of plastics processing. The fact that many brand owners do not take into consideration the true lifecycle of so-called “plastic alternatives” shows that we are not doing what is needed to advocate for the industry and the many benefits of polymer materials.

Ultimately, I believe that most of Snap Kitchen’s compostable packaging will end up in the garbage, which will be easier and more convenient for consumers of their meals than trying to track down a commercial composting facility or even trying to find a composting bin where they can dispose of the packaging.

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