Biodegradable, curb-side / by KirstenStudio

spc-biotechI recently watched the documentary, Blue Vinyl.  Last summer, I attended a panel discussion on Philanthropy and Film that was part of IFP’s Filmmaker Conference in New York.  Judith Helfand was one of the speakers on the panel.  She co-directed and produced Blue Vinyl with Daniel B. Gold.  Ms. Helfand was an excellent speaker and talked about how film can elicit change.  Her film, Blue Vinyl, resulted in the organization entitled Your House is My House.  The organization (as reads on the official website) …”is the consumer education and advocacy campaign tied to the award-winning documentary, Blue Vinyl, a film that explores and exposes the toxic lifecycle of PVC plastic.”  I had been meaning to watch the film since I heard her speak, but as it turned out, I added it to my Netflix queue where it was promptly lost in the abyss of my movie list.  Last week the documentary finally arrived at the #1 position and was sent my way.

While watching Blue Vinyl, I remembered listening to Judith Helfand and what she said perked my ears because of my interest in environmental issues, in particular, the life cycle of a product and it’s impact on life and planet.  I am also curious as to how film and activism work together.  I have often felt cynical toward the idea of film inspiring a movement or some sort of action.  Doesn't it seem sometimes that good films are seen and forgotten after the audience exits the theatre, if they're even seen at all?  The panel discussion, however, turned  me into a believer that film can indeed affect change.

Which, oddly enough, brings me to the subject of biodegradable goods. I believe the biodegradable industry will continue grow, at a rapid rate and believe this is good news to every one.  I also think the subject of the biodegradable business and it’s potential growth, would make a compelling documentary (I know, it may not sound riveting, but Ms. Helfand make a fascinating and funny documentary about plastic!), which in turn, could possibly inspire and create a positive impact on our environment.

When I first became enlightened about buying environment and human friendly products, I bought stuff like recycled paper products and natural household cleaning solutions.  I also got into organic food, toiletries and beauty products.  Then I learned that the term “organic” is sometimes used pretty loosely, so I made efforts to buy USDA Organic (which still isn’t up to par, but it’s going to have to be close enough for now).  I stopped buying bottled water and switched to SIGG eco reusable containers to keep myself hydrated.  I eventually arrived at “biodegradable”.  I purchased biodegradable food storage containers, biodegradable utensils, biodegradable produce bags, biodegradable garbage bags and other goods that boast biodegradable packaging. 

I found out that a little more research could have saved me the time in finding all this stuff and the extra money it cost buying these products that are substantially more expensive than those ugly, mean, non-eco friendly products.

Come to find, biodegradable/compostable goods often require the item end up in an industrial composting facility in order for it to actually biodegrade.  I obviously wasn’t paying enough attention.  It helps if you read the fine print.  For instance, my biodegradable food containers I purchased read, “…That's right, our PLA containers will completely compost under commercial composting conditions in just 45-60 days.”  My biodegradable food storage bags read, “…will biodegrade rapidly and safely when composted in a municipal or commercial facility.  Please check to make sure facilities are available in your community.”

I found out (I’m sure many of you are already aware) that organic materials biodegrade when broken down by other live organisms, like enzymes and microbes, and are then naturally recycled as new life (often becoming soil). This process happens with the assistance of oxygen (aerobically) or sometimes without the assistance of oxygen. Organic materials biodegrade at a much faster rate with exposure to oxygen because it significantly aids in the breaking down of the molecules.

potting_soilThe definition of biodegradable in the Merriam-Websters online dictionary is “capable of being broken down especially into innocuous products by the action of living things (as microorganisms)”.  So, biodegradable is a good thing, if you ask me, but products that can composte require oxygen to break down properly and throwing these items into a garbage dump won’t do the trick. Besides that, biodegradable products don’t get reincarnated in reusable, healthy soil when they get left with the other non-biodegradable refuse.  Anything that ends up in a landfill gets buried and it happens pretty quickly, as I’m sure you can imagine.  Something an industrial composting site does is kind of churn the stew, allowing oxygen to access everything, and sooner or later, all that nice and friendly biodegradable stuff breaks down into that innocuous product Merriam-Webster describes.

Typically, the major components of biodegradable products and resins are polymers such as corn starch, potato starch, and various forms of polyesters.  Compostable products, defined by ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) biodegrade in commercial composting facilities at a specified rate (usually 180 days or less). ASTM standards ensure breakdown only in municipal or industrial facilities.  These sites aren’t exactly wide spread yet and right now there’s no quick and convenient way to get your compost and biodegradables to these facilities.  Not only that, but it takes some initiative to educate oneself how to make sure your biodegradable goods do reincarnate.  You can’t just dump your food scraps with biodegradable food containers, utensils and cups all in the same compost bin, bag it up, drop it off and call it a day.  Just like recycling, it involves following some instruction, learning something new and going a little out of your way, sacrificing a few more minutes to make sure everything is sorted and separated properly. Hopefully, like recycling, it can become automatic and second nature. 

Right now I feel frustrated by what feels like a lack of access to these commercial composting sites. To an average eco-conscious consumer such as myself, it seems a long trip (in a car that’s burning gas) to take one or two biodegradable bag (if that) of separated biodegradable “stuff” per week to a commercial composting business.  From what I understand, you often need to call and arrange a drop off as well.  That’s assuming you have a site in your area.  If there is one relatively close by, I don’t think the problem is that people don’t want to do make the trip, it’s just that we’re all trying to squeeze more and more into one week or one day or one morning.  It would be terrific to find a way to make it easier.  If dealing with biodegrables were convenient, I believe that convenience could create significant impact.

Not that I’m any sort of environmental expert, but I propose this biodegradable friendly idea.  What if city sanitation services out there developed a composting pick-up industry, the same way they have with refuse and recycling collection? 

20090212-211207-pic-7582583031After all, we have abused our pretty planet.  Garbage runneth over. I do believe, however, some curb-side service could help us recoup out good standing with the earth by accomplishing several environment loving goals, and even create quite a few new jobs in the process. Participants would contribute less to landfills, and from what I hear, we’re running out of planet space and garbage can be rather toxic.  Another bonus about this brilliant idea is that whatever is composted by these commercial facilities could be turned around as soil/fertilizer and sold either at a profit or at the very least to cover a lot of overhead of running said establishment and employee salary and benefits.  The sanitation services could offer free composting bins (apartment size or house size) and pick-up days just as we have for our trash and recycling. Citizens would need to purchase their own composting bin bags (specifically approved for such purpose), just as we now buy our own recycling bags to put our paper, plastic or glass in to be collected. 

The great thing about true composting is that it doesn’t harm the environment, where as even recyclables produce toxic waste, when those recyclables are initially manufactured and again when they are reproduced into new product.  Recycling causes pollution just as manufacturing new plastics or glass does, but recycling is better than throwing away, simply because it is the lesser of two evils (although some would argue that).  Biodegradable products are super cool because they start out natural and end natural without harm at the beginning, middle or end of their life (at least those items that are really biodegradable), and their life transforms and lives on (remaining harmless) if they are composted properly.  “Cradle to Cradle” is a term used by William McDonough and the chemist, Michael Braungart. They wrote an incredible book, called just that.   Cradle to Cradle is about remaking the way we make things and it’s pretty darn ingenious.  Now days, a company can even become Cradle to Cradle certified.  This book describes the conflict between industry and the environment and how that clash can be turned around to opportunity for both.  We can contribute by buying and using biodegradable products more and more.  This will further a demand for the growth of this industry.  We can live a Cradle to Cradle lifestyle.  The one big glitch in the system though, is how we easily dispose of our eco-conscious goods when we’re done with them.  Otherwise the whole reason for producing compost ready goods is a wash.  I’m mean what’s the point if we throw our biodegradable food containers in the trash where they take 40, 80, over 100 years to breakdown?  And then they aren’t even turning into reusable soil.  The circle of life wouldn't complete.

I believe with the kind of convenience a curb side pick up service for biodegrables would provide, more people would step up to the plate, purchase biodegradable products and compost those food scraps and left-overs as much as they recycle.  After all, green is hip and necessary. It would be real slick if there was some sort of modest tax break for participates too.  That is always a nice incentive. 

The Seattle Washington area has already jumped on this idea by offering curb side food scrap pick-up.  As they mention on their site, “Nearly 30% of what we throw away in our garbage is organic – and the average single-family household throws away about 45 pounds of food scraps and food-soiled paper every month. Items such as vegetable and fruit trimmings, meats, fish and poultry scraps and bones, plate scrapings, egg shells, coffee grounds, paper towels and napkins–even greasy pizza delivery boxes…”

Just think, the more biodegradable goods that are purchased, used and disposed of properly, the most biodegradable goods will be on the market.  I think it would be just grand if biodegrables replace plastics.  Just think what kind of difference it would make on landfills and the amount of pollution caused by newly manufactured plastics and remanufactured plastics if plastic bottled water and other beverages made the transition to biodegradable materials? It would be huge, and that’s just one example. Not to mention (but to mention) the health risks that result in drinking and eating from plastic containers that leech PVC and other harmful chemicals.  Wouldn’t it be nice if you weren’t consuming our food and beverage containers along with your food and beverages?

Of course, I make this all sound kind of easy.  Incorporating all this with the sanitation services and building new municipal composting facilities throughout the country is a huge project, but I do think it's a necessary one.  As Judith Helfand says to her parents, trying to convince them to remove their home’s vinyl siding, in the film Blue Vinyl, “… One family could make one point … us, make a point that a company, not just companies, but consumers and companies together, have to be responsible to the whole life cycle of a product.”