by Tricia Dameron
Human ingenuity has discovered yet another use for corn: bioplastic, specifically in the form of disposable flatware. Have you seen these products? You might not even know the difference, except that they melt a lot easier. They look just like their petroleum-based counterparts. What's the attraction? Well, for one, they are not made from petroleum. That's a plus. But, they are made from a foodstuff, which is a growing concern in this age of corn ethanol. Another advantage of polylactic acid (PLA), the technical name for the resin, is that it's compostable. Well, at least that's what one would assume from reading the product label. However, that's not the complete story. It's compostable, yes, but only in a commercial facility. According to this Scientific American article, there are only 113 industrial-grade composting facilities in the U.S. I wonder how many of these facilities accept public drop-offs? Some of these products are labeled with the term "biodegradable." To be clear, these items are not biodegradable in a landfill; they might degrade in 100 or 1,000 years. Landfills are designed to entomb our waste to prevent contamination of the environment; in turn, the "bio"—the sun, air, fungus—of "biodegrade" is removed from the process.
So, if backyard composting doesn't work, can you put them in your
recycle bin? Apparently, it's not that straightforward. NatureWorks, a
PLA manufacturer owned in-part by Cargill, says PLA has no negative impact on the quality of flake produced from recycling PET and HDPE plastics. Yet, this Smithsonian article states that PLA is considered a contaminant when found in the recycle stream of PET. Some bioplastics may be imprinted with resin code 7. If so, these are accepted by Waste Management in Oklahoma City, but are they actually recycled? No industry representative would go on the record to confirm or deny it.
In situations where reusable plates and flatware are not feasible, it would be nice to have an option like these corn-based plastics—an option made from renewable resources that biodegrade. However, at this point it seems our infrastructure does not support the intended benefits of these products. It would also seem that there needs to be truth in marketing to reflect these limitations.