SustPack 2017 provides platform for discussion of ‘plastics problem’

For at least 100 years, innovators and scientists have wrestled with how to make that modern miracle material—plastic—better, stronger and more durable. Finding new applications for all these materials was the next big challenge, as plastic went from the Hula Hoop (a way to get rid of excess PE), drinking glasses and the Frisbee to automotive exterior parts and engine components. Along the way, plastics became ubiquitous.

Now it seems that innovators and scientists are struggling with how to get rid of those same polymer materials that just won’t go away. As I listened to various presentations at SustPack 2017 in Scottsdale, AZ, this week, I was in awe of the amount of time and money that is being put into trying to make plastic look like something other than what it is, or to make it disappear altogether in some magical, mystical way—“like it never even happened” (if I may steal the tag line from the ServePro TV commercial).

There was also much talk about the “problem” of plastics. We all know that plastics definitely has a PR—as well as a PC—problem, as consumers buy into the hype of the dangers of plastics and how plastics are turning the world into a garbage dump.

Jennifer Idol from The Underwater Designer spoke of her experience in cleaning up a lake of the never-ending supply of various plastic trash near her home in Texas. She designs products in which the first question she asks herself is, “does it need to exist?” She then advised the audience to “choose alternative materials” because “plastic never goes away.”

Idol also noted that “recycling [of plastics] is not the answer because it doesn’t solve the problem of reducing the need for plastics. . . . Choose better materials; ones we can be proud of,” she concluded.

Idol didn’t say what constitutes a “better” material that we can be “proud” of and on what basis that judgment might be made other than, I suppose, it’s not plastic.        

Even some of the various packaging industry/trade organizations don’t seem to be helping plastics with its identity problem. Many of them promise solutions to the “problem” of plastics rather than offering a defense of the many benefits of plastics or noting the problems polymer materials have solved over the past half-century.

Take composting trade groups, for example. For those organizations, the only good plastic is a biodegradable or compostable one. We were reminded, however, by a member of the audience, that a biodegradable material isn’t necessarily compostable. But when you’re a hammer, everything is a nail.

Susan Thoman, Principle and Managing Director of the Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA), spoke about the group’s goal of zero waste. That initiative includes composting food waste with compostable containers, single-use service ware and cups, specific to the Seattle, WA, area. Seattle was the first municipality to pass a law (in 2010) that all fast-food restaurants, food courts and other food service businesses use only service ware that is compostable or recyclable. Taco Time in Seattle went to the one-bin system, where compostable plates and other service ware go into the same bin as food waste, which is then taken to the composting facility.

Julia Wetstein, Compostable Products Advocate and consultant for Vegware US, a company headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland, that makes plant-based service ware that can be composted along with food waste, said that its products are “intended to be composted and break down in 12 weeks.”

No one mentioned that many composting facilities will not take “bio-based” plastic service ware because it does not break down quickly. Some have found bio-based plastic pieces in their compost up to a year later. A few years ago, a plastics engineering professor gave a presentation on this topic and noted that plastics, biobased or traditional, are made by an industrial process. That means that it will not break down naturally in the environment, even in a controlled environment such as a composting facility.

Additionally, Thoman didn’t mention the more than 350 lawsuits that have been filed against Cedar Grove Composting, one of the largest composters in the U.S., with three facilities in Washington state. It seems that neighbors don’t like the odors being emitted by the composting facility as vegetation, food waste and compostable service ware rots its way into useable soil in which to grow tomatoes and petunias. The company has tried to use various technologies to mitigate the odors. It also has been fined, and even won one lawsuit last week when a Snohomish County jury ruled in favor of Cedar Grove. It seems James Moffat, a resident who was among 350 plaintiffs who live near one of Cedar Grove Composting’s sites, couldn’t prove where the bad smell was coming from: Pacific Topsoils’ facility, with which Cedar Grove Composting shares a site; two municipal waste water plants; or the Snohomish River estuary.

It isn’t easy being green!

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