Greenwashing, or exaggerating the environmentally friendly selling points of a product, happens in all avenues of foodservice, and is no longer the exclusive domain of organically produced or farm fresh ingredients.
The concept of greenwashing has impacted foodservice equipment with the occasional stretched energy-efficiency claim. The packaging and disposables sector is no different.
Terms like biodegradable and compostable have flown around on labels and as part of marketing and promotional efforts for years. But just like the organic market, certification is needed to make a claim of compostable.
"I find there is a lot of confusion around labeling and a lot of marketing claims that are maybe not intentionally misleading, but not conveying a complete understanding of what the performance will be," says Andrew Shakman, president and CEO of Portland-based LeanPath, Inc., a food waste tracking and management system provider.
Though it's been a few years since the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) developed standards for compostable claims and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued guidelines for biodegradable labels, the real understanding of those terms are just now beginning to take shape in the marketplace, says Shakman.
Shakman looks at the biodegradable versus compostable label for disposables like a Venn diagram, with all of the compostable products being biodegradable, but not all biodegradables are compostable. Shakman points out that the term biodegradable, before the FTC began regulating its use, was a marketing tool for many companies.
"The issue has been that people throw around the biodegradable term because it's 'green,' but what does that really mean?" Shakman says.
The American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) describes biodegradable as "a degradation caused by biological activity, especially by enzymatic action, leading to a significant change in the chemical structure of the material."
To deal with labeling confusion and greenwashing, the FTC has issued general guidelines for which products can be justly called biodegradable. According to the FTC, only products containing materials that "break down and decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short amount of time when they are exposed to air, moisture and bacteria or other organisms," should be termed as such.
Still, the FTC has not gone as far as to assign a metric to "reasonable amount of time." All organic and inorganic matter can biodegrade, but the timetable for different products and materials vary widely, from 180 days to decades.
"A typical plastic bag, for example, will biodegrade or photodegrade, given enough time, moisture and sunlight, but this contributes no beneficial material back to the soil and earth in which it decomposes," according to Peggy Cross, founder of EcoTensil, a manufacturer of utensils made from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper. "Being biodegradable in itself, aside from it implying an object will eventually break down, perhaps in years or decades, and become invisible to the naked eye, it doesn't specify the quality of the decomposed final product."
Composting a disposable foodservice-related item can result in something that can be used as a soil amendment to "close the loop" on natural resources and give back to the earth, literally.
Composting is a very tightly controlled system that monitors oxygen, water, nitrogen, carbon, organic and inorganic matter to ensure thorough aeration and digestion of the product, according to Shakman.
"Food used to be the only organic component of a foodservice waste stream, but now with compostable disposables you have both," he says.
Whereas selecting food ingredients and equipment is extremely important in foodservice, it's essentially backwards in waste management, according to Shakman. "Foodservice starts with a beautiful plate of food that ends up as waste, but composters start with your waste and turn it into beautiful soil product."
It's important, therefore, that only compostable products enter the compost stream. But in the heyday of greenwashing, many non-compostable products were labeled compostable, even if those claims weren't justified.
While this still goes on, it's been lessened since ASTM came out with standards for labeling plastic products as compostable. The ASTM D-6400-04: Standard Specification for Compostable Plastics determines if plastics and products made from plastics that are designed to be composted in municipal and industrial aerobic composting facilities will compost satisfactorily, including biodegrading at a rate comparable to known compostable materials (maximum of 180 days).
The ASTM D-6868-11: Standard Specification for Labeling of End Items that Incorporate Plastics and Polymers as Coatings or Additives with Paper and Other Substrates Designed to be Aerobically Composted in Municipal or Industrial Facilities establishes the requirements for labeling of materials and products (including packaging), wherein a biodegradable plastic film or coating is attached to the product designed to be composted. According to the ASTM, in order to compost satisfactorily, the product must demonstrate (1) proper disintegration during composting; (2) adequate level of inherent biodegradation; and (3) no adverse impacts on the ability of composts to support plant growth.
The Biodegradable Products Institute offers a certification for disposable manufacturers who meet or exceed the ASTM standards and meet other tests to assure compliance with the composting standards set by facilities in the immediate area. For example, some municipalities have stricter regulations for when a product must turn into compost. Some can be 90 days or even 60 days, as enforced by Cedar Grove in Seattle, according to Shakman.
Once passing these tests, BPI licenses the company to use its trademarked compostable logo on products and marketing materials. In many cases, BPI also requires full disclosure of all ingredients used in each product submitted for testing to avoid any false advertising claims.
PLA stands for polylactic acid, a polyester derived from renewable resources, namely corn starch, but also occasionally tapioca, potato and other plant starches. Again Shakman's Venn diagram applies: all PLAs could be considered biodegradable under FTC guidelines, but not all PLA products are compostable.
PLA spoons may biodegrade faster than regular plastic spoons in a landfill, but that doesn't mean the end-product can be used as soil amendment. Even in a composting facility, the same PLA spoons may biodegrade even faster, but could still leach toxins into the end compost product.
"The definition of biodegradable does not specify level of toxicity, where as ASTM compliance verifies non-toxicity," according to Cross. "The toxic pesticide DDT biodegrades to the compounds DDD and DDE, both of which are actually more harmful and toxic than the original."
The other issue is the resin used in the production or coating of the PLA product (ASTM D-6868 covers this). There are companies that will claim to have compostable PLA products, but they might contain plastic resins that contaminate the waste stream and leach toxins with a potential to render the soil amendment end-result unusable.
"The product has to be 100 percent bio-based with no synthetic products added, otherwise it means it's not compostable," says Matt Wynkoop of World Centric, a former non-profit geared toward composting/waste education, now a manufacturer of BPI-certified compostable PLA and other disposable products.
Years ago, one of the key complaints about corn-based PLA disposables was the fact that they did not stand up to heat very well. Over time, some manufacturers have stepped up the use of noncompostable plastic-based resins in PLA products as a way to make them more heat resistant, Wynkoop explains. Other companies, though, now use a natural talc as a resin for their corn PLA products to make them more heat resistant. And some of these plastic-like products have been deemed compostable by ASTM standards (they breakdown within 180 days).
To see if the PLA products chosen meet these standards look for a BPI certification logo or a listing on the BPI directory (www.bpiworld.org). Or, ask the company and look for transparency about the time it takes for its products to become compost — even if something is said to be 100 percent compostable or appears to be. Again like in the organic community, just because a vegetable isn't certified organic, doesn't mean the farm didn't follow organic practices in growing it (think farmer's market produce from small-scale, local family farms).
Products that are 100 percent compostable for the most part are those made from paper, bamboo, wheat fiber, and even crushed and compacted fallen leaves. In addition to the compostable corn-based PLA products, some companies offer items made from 100 percent wheat straw.
One company offers a cup insert line that is made from corn and other domestically grown plants and Ingeo biopolymer. Other companies use Ingeo for some of their products. To make Ingeo, PLA undergoes a two-step degradation process that splits the polymer chains into smaller polymers and lactic acid, which are compostable byproducts.
And then there are reusable products made from BPA-free polypropylene. These products are not suitable for composting, but can be used in catering and for students to reuse at colleges and universities as well as in room service use at hospitals and hotels. Part of the challenge, though, is getting the customer, more so than the operator, to reuse the containers and not throw them away.
Even polystyrene or Styrofoam, once and still banned and blasted by communities nationwide, has been forced into a more "sustainable" option. Shakman points out a newer piece of equipment on the market that can condense these cups to save space in landfills. Not a perfect solution, but one step better for limited-budget operators who have decided these are the only disposable products they can use.
While the number of biodegradable and compostable options continues to grow, the fact remains that there's no one-size-fits-all solution to selecting and purchasing disposables. Given that there are standards specifically for compostable disposal products, we should just always choose those products, right? Not always so, Shakman says.
Composting infrastructure doesn't exist in every municipality, for one, and price is another concern. Also, if the foodservice operator uses compostable disposables, that's great, but what's to say the customer isn't going to simply throw the containers in the garbage in a take-out situation?
"I find, whenever I talk about this topic, I'm looking for clear answers, but unfortunately they're not available — it's a situation where people have to do some careful thinking about their own goals and objectives before they make a decision," Shakman says.
So how does one make a decision in this arena? Shakman says the best thing to do is to first establish goals.
"Do you want to avoid non-compostable product at all costs or just use any renewable resource?" Shakman says. "Are you looking to achieve zero waste? Ensure less use of foreign oil? Or do you simply want to reduce your carbon footprint?"
Once that's accomplished, the operator needs to determine the composting infrastructure in their community. Some of the questions Shakman points out are: Is there a commercial composing facility in my area? Can I collect and compost the items if I want to? Will I be able to collect items from my guests or will they go into the general landfill stream?
"If you put any product that is organically derived (such as food or compostable disposables) into a landfill, there is a risk of it degrading and contributing to methane production," Shakman says. "Landfills are not efficient digesters of these products like composting facilities and methane escape is a big concern."
Once these goal and infrastructure questions have been answered, "it becomes clearer whether to use compostable disposables or another product," Shakman says. "And, if you do go compostable, you want to do everything that way to avoid a sorting nightmare between recyclable and compostable items."
Separate bins for compost (food waste and compostable disposables), recycling and, if need be, a trash bin with pictures or adequate signage to instruct guests and staff become necessary.
Selecting the right disposables for an operation is no easy task, for sure. But with some goal setting, understanding of local waste management infrastructure, and some research into products claiming to be compostable and/or biodegradable, those decisions can more easily be made. Especially as the standards, certification and education for compostable versus biodegradable disposables improve.