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Biodegradable Plastics

Posted by Anthony 24 February 2009 - 5:10pm

I think a discussion is needed about the use of biodegradable
(including compostable) plastics for the serving of food and beverages
at events.

Plastics such as PLA (polylactide) are biodegradable but currently
there are no readily available collection systems in Australia to allow
these materials to be recycled.  As a result, events planners need to
consider the net environmental value associated with using such
materials.

If the biodegradable plastic can't be included with the rigid
recyclable containers (e.g. PET water bottles, HDPE milk bottles etc)
nor be included with the green waste organics, they may need to be
disposed in the garbage stream and sent to landfill.  Buried in a
landfill, the plastic will not see oxygen nor sunlight and therefore
the rate of degradation will be very slow and similar to the rate of
degradation of normal plastics.

That said, biodegradable plastics reduce the demand for petroleum
resources and so even if they sit in the landfill there has likely been
some improvement to the environmental footprint of the event.   

One of the other benefits of using biodegradable plastics is in
situations where disposable plastic items such as cups, knives, forks
and plates may be tossed into the environment (e.g. forest, river) and
not captured by the waste management team.  If this is possible (then
firstly you should put measures in place to avoid it!), then
biodegradable plastics would be the choice because they will degrade in
the environment and therefore be less likely to cause problems to
wildlife and marine life.

Let me know what you think....

Who needs to be influenced to get a PLA recycler

I guess from this I have a question... who do we need to place the demand on to get a PLA recycling stream up and running?  Is anyone doing trials in this area or are there any natural alliances for existing recyclers, compost processors etc that we could take advantage of? 

Events managers need to negotiate outcome with composters

Hi Tamsin,

Event managers have a key role to play in this issue, as discussed below, but there other broader issues that also need to be considered.... 

There appears to be two 'camps' forming in the supply side; one that focuses on bioplastics and the other that includes a collection of companies that have petroleum based products that have additives that makes them biodegradable or compostable.  These two groups will have difficulty joining together to lobby the composting industry because the bioplastics camp promotes, as one their benefits, the reduced reliance on the petroleum industry for raw materials.

Recently I discovered that there are two composting facilities in Sydney that accept commercial size quantities of food waste, including packaging food waste (e.g. from supermarkets).  Both of these operations currently screen out all plastic packaging at the first stage of the process and therefore any compostable plastics are removed and sent to landfill.  If this is the common practice then it is going to be difficult to have the composting industry accept compostable plastics unless they are being received as a source separated waste stream.

For events waste there is the opportunity for the event manager to negotiate an arrangement with the composter to allow the compost organics stream from the event to be allowed to by-pass the first plastic screening stage.  This should be done before the event to ensure that both parties understand the expected 'quality' of the compostable waste stream so that it meets the composting standards, without the need for the intial screen.

Whilst this could be negotiated by an events manager or a supermarket for source separated compostables, the main barrier to entry for the compostables industry is that consumers will not have the opportunity to compost the compostable packaging because it can't be included in the kerbside Green Waste bin (because it will be screened out) and the home compost pile will unlikely be sufficient for most packaging generated by the family - keep an eye on what claims are being made on this type of packaging. Whilst this is not an "events" issue, I think believe that it is important for event managers to appreciate the difficulties being faced by the industry to introduce, more widely, this form of disposable packaging etc and to have the answers for domestic waste /recycling.

Therefore of 'compostable' plastics are to be used an event the event manager should take control of the situation in the planning stages and negoitate an arrangement with the waste contractor to ensure that all collected compostable materials (food, plates, serviettes, forks, cups....) are actually composted.  The 'agreement' that is struck may require evidence to confirm that this was done such as photographs, videos and an inspection of the entire process by a event representative.  This might not be needed if you have a past history with the company or you consider that the company is reputable, trust worthy and as committed to sustainability and landfill diversion as you are - it's your call on what level of audit is required.

Anthony