New York City and other metropolitan hubs have recently banned extruded polystyrene products, the most prevalent of which is Styrofoam, a product manufactured by The Dow Chemical Company.
Styrofoam, a lower-grade plastic product, is not recyclable in many parts of the country.
The ban will crack down on businesses distributing Styrofoam, in a measure to limit the damage it does to the environment. This regulation means businesses handing out containers and coffee cups made of Styrofoam will start facing major fines for each product they distribute to customers.
All businesses will need to find new products to replace their Styrofoam. Many will most likely transition to using higher grade recyclable plastics. Some businesses, however, have already adopted a more sustainable solution by using biodegradable and compostable materials.
But what do the designations recyclable, biodegradable and compostable actually mean? How can you, the consumer, tell what your favorite businesses are using?
Recyclable means a product — usually glass, paper, metal or plastic-based — is made cleanly enough that it can be broken down and made into another salable product. The recycling process allows us to reuse our waste, which is good, but it does require quite a bit of energy.
Manufacturers traditionally label their recyclable products with a small triangle made of arrows. There are seven categories of plastics known as resin numbers (yes, the numbers printed in the center of the triangle), the first category being the highest grade plastics, the seventh being a catch-all category that includes items like biodegradable products.
The categories are important because the quality of plastic degrades over time. Just because the familiar triangle appears on a container from your favorite take out place does not mean it can be recycled in your community.
Styrofoam, for example, is a six-grade plastic, making it a low-grade plastic that does not recycle well. Styrofoam products usually need to be thrown out.
Likewise, if you notice numbers three — polyvinyl, or PVC — or four — low-density polyethylene, ex. shopping bags, plastic wrap — on your containers, you should be wary that these plastics will not be accepted for curbside recycling in most communities.
Paper containers, including cardboards, are recyclable but also degrade over time. Almost all paper, even lower grade paper used in containers like egg cartons, is recyclable. However, any soiled paper products, including food-stained containers, cannot be recycled.
Other types of recyclables, such as glass and aluminum, do not lose their quality at as fast a rate. That means you can always recycle glass and aluminum containers, if of course they are clean.
Biodegradable and Compostable Containers
If a container claims to be compostable, that means that it can break down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass in approximately 90 days. When waste goes through the composting process, millions of microbes consume it and transform into an organic material known as humus. The composting process is beneficial because humus can fertilize soil and doesn’t leave toxic residue behind.
One of the only ways to be certain if a container is compostable is if the Biodegradable Products Institute [BPI] has tested it to ensure it will safely breakdown in a commercial composting facility. A leaf and an arrow-shaped tree (as well as the word “Compostable”) make up the BPI-approved symbol.
Confusingly, biodegradable containers can be marked as recyclables (usually as number seven plastics) and compostable. This overlap is due in part to a lack of legal regulation over what the term, “biodegradable,” actually means. In theory a biodegradable product is one that can break down with oxygen and turn into carbon dioxide, water and biomass after approximately six months.
Biodegradable containers are rarely collected in curbside recycling because they are made with cornstarch and vegetable oil, additives that compromise the quality of recycled plastics. Unfortunately biodegradable materials put into landfills are not exposed to enough oxygen to quickly decompose.
Biodegradable containers are best broken down in a composting facility where heat and humidity is regulated. So, when a product is designated as biodegradable it’s best that it end up, if possible, in a composting pile.
What You Can Do
Although the different products on the market can be confusing, their presence is positive, a step away from Styrofoam and other harmful products and a step toward environmentally-friendly processes. But for these products to have a powerful impact, both businesses and consumers must increase their knowledge and — more importantly — change their practices.
Obviously, recycling your boxes and containers is a great start to becoming a more sustainable consumer. As this routine becomes comfortable, you can intentionally begin patroning companies using compostable and biodegradable containers. You may also start a composting pile, either outdoors or in your home. Most metropolitan areas have composting centers where you can take your pile when it becomes too large.
Other day-to-day practices to consider would be to bring reusable bags with you when you are shopping to cut down on the need for containers and plastic shopping bags. Carrying a reusable water bottle and/or thermos with you will also cut down on the number of plastic and soiled paper cups you use. Many business will fill your reusable cup with you purchased beverage for no extra charge.
These little daily changes can make a big difference in reducing your carbon footprint and making you a more conscious consumer.
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