Human nature is the largest culprit of our waste problem. Provided a cheap, fast option, the average individual will acquiesce, and the result is recycling becoming a dying industry. In effort to combat that, many companies have taken up the task of creating disposable goods from “Compostable” materials, like cutlery, cups, straws, and other packaging. Though only 1% of all plastics made, the trend has caught steam in sustainable consumerism as restaurants have begun switching to these bioplastic options to address their carbon footprint. Compostable products are often made out of plant-based alternatives to fossil fuels which helps reduce CO2 emissions during production, but how are they impacting the mounting ocean plastic crisis? Every year, over 8 million tons of plastic waste are dumped into the ocean, and with a boom in organic waste, composting is supposed to be the solution. Yet most never make it to the proper facilities and many of these facilities are closing their doors to bioplastics entirely. Are compostable plastics truly better for the environment as promised?
Contrary to the common consumer’s expectation, “Industrially Compostable” products will not simply disappear after use, nor will they break down in most home composts with organic scraps. Though many petroleum plastics take centuries to degrade or never break down, tests have shown bioplastics can still take decades to fully biodegrade in a landfill. Compostable plastic products require ambient conditions like high moisture, temperatures over 150 degrees fahrenheit, and cycles of airflow in order to completely biodegrade into organic byproducts. Unfortunately, very few compostable plastics actually end up in appropriate industrial compost sites. As of 2009, there were only 42 commercial composting facilities in the United States; in 2019, there were just over 120 facilities nationwide, yet noticeably less are accepting compostable plastic products (Biocycle Compost Science Journal).
The truth is, very few industrial compost facilities exist in the US and those that do, typically don’t want compostable plastics because their commonly white visage is practically indistinguishable from traditional plastic. In Connecting with Industrial waste facilities referred to by leading bioplastic producers, Repurpose and Eco Products, each stated they had been rejecting bioplastic products, instead sorting them into landfills with traditional plastic waste. GreenTek’s attempts to find accepting compost facilities in California led to over 75% responding as not interested in, or actively refusing bioplastics. Most likened the process of separating “compostable” waste to searching for a needle in a haystack.
In an example that exemplifies the problem, Oregon Composting Services recently pressured the Department of Environmental Quality to send a letter to businesses and consumers telling them to stop sending compostable packaging and serviceware.
So how do we ensure these disposable products actually break down and achieve the mission of reducing the mountains of plastic ending up in our landfills and oceans? The truth is, companies producing bioplastics must actively work with waste management experts to develop products whose end of life destinations match their degradation profiles. Companies like GreenTek Packaging LLC, a member of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator at La Kretz Campus, is working from the ground up to address this. Partnering with local farmers and chemical engineers, they are working to ensure plant based biopolymers are actually a solution to the current crisis and not a facade.
In speaking with their Founder, Jordan Hinshaw addressed the elephant in the room. “Greenwashing threatens to paint an image of despair around the possibility for renewable plastics, but the advances in technology are a reason for great optimism. We’re dedicated to carrying the torch of this science across the necessary milestones to close the loop, and everyday we are more enthused.”
GreenTek’s foray into the food industry with utensils made from hemp has been marked with multiple iterations to ensure functionality, cost effectiveness, and proper degradation. Since being accepted into the LACI’s Innovators Program, the largest cleantech accelerator’s support has helped guide the company’s growth. While it could be argued that the benefit of successful expansion could be considered in the arena of a necessary non-profit, thus far the team at Greentek has bootstrapped its development.
With the mission of cutting down on petroleum based plastics at the precipice of an upward arching commodity(oil, energy, raw materials) industry impacted by record setting trade deficits and an impaired economy, the team sees agro-waste sources like hemp stalks, coffee hulls and barley biomass as huge opportunities to create circular economies domestically.
Want to support? Subscribe to GreenTek’s Newsletter here, or follow them on social media @GreenTekPlanet on IG and FB. “Hemptensils” and other supplies can be found at their website ShopHemptensils.com and are reaching new retailers around the nation.