Throughout the winter and spring, BRING has been helping the Love Food Not Waste program roll out its residential composting pilot program. To help people understand what not to put in their compost bins, we are revisiting this story on bioplastics we published last year in the UsedNews, our quarterly print and online newsletter.
By Shirley Perez West
As VP for Environmental Services at Rexius, part of Jack Hoeck’s job includes turning food waste into a contaminant-free, marketable soil product. For a city that throws away up to 30,000 tons of food each year, it’s also a valuable public service. And converting mountains of leftover table scraps into rich garden compost, it turns out, is no picnic.
Nearly five years into their program, partners in Love Food Not Waste (LFNW) have reaped a few insights about collecting and composting food waste. First, it’s critical that what’s being collected doesn’t contain items that aren’t compostable. Second, not all supposedly compostable bioplastics are created equal. Third, and perhaps most importantly, compostable plastics of any kind don’t add value to the end product.
“We thought it was a good thing,” says Hoeck of Rexius’ initial reaction to so-called compostable serviceware – cups, plates, containers and utensils made of plant-based plastics. “We promoted compostable cups. We gave them to events, then sold them for cost, then backed away completely.”
Eugene landfills more than 20,000 tons of food waste annually – 10,000 tons of it from businesses. To change this, the City of Eugene’s LFNW program has partnered with Rexius, local businesses, and waste haulers – recovering 6,775 tons of leftover food and biodegradable materials from the waste stream since November 2011. The program currently processes about 1,000 tons of food waste into compost annually, says city Solid Waste & Green Building Analyst Michael Wisth.
About 200 local businesses, religious groups, schools, event venues, nonprofits, residential complexes, and public agencies voluntarily participate in LFNW, says Wisth. Participating organizations separate their food-related trash for separate pickup by waste haulers and receive a modest reduction in hauling fees.
Bioplastic manufacturers sold their product on the promise that it could take the place of plastic in food service settings and be processed at commercial composters or biomethane plants. The biodegradable materials would supposedly break down along with the organic matter and produce energy or rich garden compost. Even bags lining food waste bins could be biodegradable. Brilliant!
Early on, home composters learned that bioplastic containers – supposedly an earth-friendly solution to the need for disposable takeout containers – remain mostly intact in even the healthiest compost pile. Wisth and other LFNW partners agree that bioplastics don’t break down fast enough in a commercial composting environment either.
Bioplastics do not contaminate a compost pile, chemically speaking, because they are made from cellulose, starches, and other plant-derived compounds. Bioplastics break down gradually and can show up in finished compost if not carefully processed and screened out. Hoeck says it gives the customer the impression that the product is contaminated. And even when they break down entirely, bioplastics don’t add any nutrients to compost.
“We take fat, bones, veggies – any foodstuffs,” says Hoeck. “Other things (i.e., compostable plastic garbage bags, cardboard, compostable serviceware) are just fluff and filler.”
A few times a week trucks from Lane Apex and Royal Refuse bring loads of commercial food waste to Rexius’ Highway 99 site. Each load first lands on a bed of wood chips, called a food pad, which absorbs liquid oozing from decomposing fruits and vegetables. Next, Rexius Retail Yard Supervisor Kevin Roemer and his team move the pile around with a tractor to look for contaminants. A staff member fills out a monitor form for each load, noting the number and description of picks – non-compostable items that must be removed.
“The big thing is waxed or plastic-coated cardboard,” says Roemer of common food waste contaminants including milk cartons, to-go containers, and coffee cups.
Other contaminants range from pop cans and water bottles to foil and silverware. If a load contains more than 20 picks, the hauler receives a $25 fine. The amount grows with the number of contaminants, topping out at $200. A load containing more than 200 gallons or 150 picks must be rejected and sent to the landfill, costing the hauler an additional $75 load fee.
In the early days of LFNW, says Roemer, haulers and their commercial clients were on a learning curve and, consequently, loads contained more unwanted items. Now most loads have no more than a few picks that need to be pulled out, thanks to the haulers’ diligent communication with their clients.
When the pile in the cavernous bay at the Highway 99 facility nears ten feet high, Rexius trucks the food waste to a second facility north of Coburg. There, it again rests on a platform of wood chips to absorb runoff. The Coburg crew shreds the material, screens it, mixes in some mature compost filled with beneficial bacteria, and piles it into small, 10-cubic-yard hills.
These new compost piles are aerated and monitored to maintain 130 degrees, the temperature prescribed for killing pathogens. After three days, the onsite crew mounds the rich, dark humus into even higher heaps, turning the huge windrows of maturing compost every seven to ten days. After seasoning in the open air for up to 150 days, the compost passes through a final screening before being packaged as the Love Food Not Waste garden compost BRING customers have come to love.
Not Created Equal
Knowing that compostable plastics might be easily confused with non-compostable plastic contaminants, early on Rexius devised a standard for accepting non-food materials: the employee checking over a load must be able to identify compostable plastic from 10 feet away. For example, a compostable plastic garbage bag is typically light green or festooned with a recognizable logo. Because many products now claim to be biodegradable, Hoeck says, it is important to have a third-party verification standard.
That certification, Hoeck says, doesn’t make compostable serviceware more desirable. It’s easily confused with non-compostable or non-certified materials, especially at events. It has to be mixed with organic materials to biodegrade. And it doesn’t add value to the compost.
Reusable dishes and utensils are preferable to compostables, according to the LFNW website. “The City of Eugene advocates for source prevention before using compostable products. If there is an opportunity to increase the use of durable serviceware at a business, event, school, or other venue, we highly recommend that option before purchasing single-use serviceware.”
BRING’s RE:think Business program helps local food businesses, grocery stores, and restaurants find alternatives to compostable plastics, says Angie Marzano, BRING’s Director of RE:think and Business Development.
“We look at what they’re currently buying and make recommendations,” Marzano says. That includes identifying compostable containers that are acceptable to the LFNW program, or educating businesses about what is accepted at the Junction City Biomethane plant, which converts commercial food waste into energy. Marzano cites her personal experience as a business owner trying to reduce potential food waste contamination.
“We learned that a lot of the things we were purchasing, like the little swords for cocktails, were unnecessary,” say Marzano of the effort Hot Mama’s Wings, her RE:think-certified restaurant, undertook to eliminate potential food waste contaminants.
In December, Hot Mama’s took a big step by getting rid of disposable wet wipes, a product most wing joint customers expect. Wet wipes come in non-recyclable foil pouches and are not biodegradable, so Hot Mama’s began asking customers to wash with soap and water instead. To help customers get on board, BRING produced a video which Hot Mama’s posted on YouTube and shared via social media.
Marzano says BRING can also help event planners think through what materials to use for big events. For example, at a large event it might be best to use recyclable cups rather than compostable. The important thing, she says, is for a planner to make sure there’s a facility to accept the preferred serviceware option before purchasing it for an event.
Residential Food Waste
With the success of LFNW’s commercial program, the city and Rexius plan to expand the service to residential customers. Mike Wisth says Eugene is targeting three to four neighborhoods for a two-year pilot program to be rolled out in the fall of 2016.
“We’re taking it pretty slowly,” says Wisth, adding that the pilot program’s goals include learning how to encourage participation, finding the best approach to monitoring, and educating residential customers about compostable materials.
The next challenge, he says, is to help people reduce waste on the front end. The project expansion is in its infancy now, and the LFNW team is exploring ways to work with restaurants and families to reduce food waste from a purchasing perspective.
To succeed, the residential version of Love Food Not Waste will have to answer a big question. “How do we try to get the least contaminated stuff,” asks Wisth, “when you’re dealing with about 2,000 residential accounts?” A big part of that answer will be teaching people that bioplastics should be kept out of their LFNW bins.