Plastics & packaging

by Trudy Bialic

This article was originally published in July 2016

Compost bin and samples of compostable items

All of PCC’s hot and cold beverage cups, soup cups, lids, straws, knives, forks, spoons, pizza boxes, brown paper sandwich wrappers, hot bar and salad bar boxes, and beige meat and seafood trays should be put in composting bins that are picked up curbside for Cedar Grove composting. White foam chicken trays, clear plastic clamshells, clear plastic deli salad and olive bar cups and lids must be washed and go into recycling.

The need to reduce packaging, especially plastics, is one of the most common and persistent concerns raised by PCC members and shoppers. Ideally, reusable packaging for deli foods, fresh meat and more would be the norm but Washington state code limits our ability to accept and use customer containers. The remaining packaging choices are a conundrum because there are virtually no wholly sustainable options available.

So we want to explain why PCC is shifting some of our recyclable packaging for deli drinks and food to compostable packaging. Our last article about packaging was in 2006, before a change in the law prompted a comprehensive review.

The impetus for change started in 2008 when the City of Seattle passed a ban against Styrofoam-type meat trays, effective January 2009. Next, all Seattle grocery stores, delis and restaurants were required to use either recyclable or compostable food service containers by July 2010. Utensils, portion cups, straws and foil-laced, insulated wrappers were to comply by July 2015.

PCC strongly supported the ordinances, even though we knew they would force hard choices.

Recycling vs. composting

Historically, PCC has used recyclable packaging. Recently, we turned our focus to finding compostable alternatives because composting is considered better for the environment than recycling.

Recycling generally requires more energy to transport, break down, refashion and ship new products, causing more pollution in the process. Recycling plastics, in particular, is only as good as the spot market demand, which is not steady. When demand is off, recyclable plastics are sent to landfills, sometimes in faraway countries. Also, recyclable plastics can recycle only if washed out thoroughly with no food remaining; if not clean, they’re considered contaminated and go to a landfill.

Composting has a higher environmental value than recycling because it can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, particularly methane, a gas 23 times more potent than CO2. When compostable packaging biodegrades in aerobic conditions, no methane is produced. Finished compost also provides fertilizer for garden beds, replacing nonrenewable, petroleum-based fertilizers. We’re especially fortunate to work with one of the nation’s preeminent, state-of-the-art composters, Cedar Grove. At its facilities, microorganisms can convert bioplastics into water, carbon dioxide and biomass — with no chemical leftovers.

The hard truth, however, is that there still are no meat trays, hot and cold beverage cups, soup cups, or cutlery that hold up to the needs of our stores and customers, are approved for Cedar Grove Composting (required by Seattle’s ordinance), and are not made from genetically engineered (GE) materials.

Available materials

Currently, all our hot and cold beverage cups and lids, soup cups and lids, forks, spoons, knives and straws are made with or lined with polylactic acid (PLA) bioplastic made from predominantly GE corn. All our beige-colored meat and seafood trays also are made with PLA. All these items are compostable but not recyclable.

Our paperboard boxes for the hot bar and salad bar also are compostable. They’re not lined with GE corn PLA, but instead with a novel, water-based film.

The white foam trays that Draper Valley uses to ship us precut, prewrapped chicken are an exception to compostable packaging — made from recyclable, petroleum-based plastic.

The clear plastic containers for deli salads, the olive bar, and bulk nut butter also are made from petroleum-based plastic and are recyclable if clean, but are not compostable. We’re considering whether these items, too, should shift to compostable options. Check the signage by store disposal bins for guidance.

Choices and decisions

We’re using GE corn-based (and petroleum) plastics only reluctantly after PCC’s own tests of numerous compostable choices found alternatives disappointing, often turning soggy and weak. Some manufacturers are testing sugar-based PLA bioplastics but we’re not aware of any that are available and Cedar Grove-approved. The best-performing compostables are from renewable bagasse (the fibrous matter remaining after crushing sugar cane or sorghum) or corn.

By law, any compostable packaging must be acceptable by Cedar Grove. But, “We have yet to see any bagasse product that will meet our standards for decomposition,” says Michele Riggs, Project Manager for Cedar Grove Composting. “Many corn-based PLA bioplastics do meet Cedar Grove requirements but the corn used to create the product is GE. There simply are no compostable cups, soup containers, lids, utensils or meat trays constructed with non-GE inputs. The separation of materials in the supply chain has not yet occurred.”

Many of the new compostable packaging products already are in PCC stores; others will phase in as orders arrive. In making the change, we considered that recyclable, petroleum-based items can recycle only if clean.

Compostable PLA bioplastics, on the other hand, can be composted unrinsed, unwashed and soiled with food. That’s part of the practical appeal. Choosing compostable packaging simplifies disposal.

Choosing PLA helps close the loop, generating renewable, commercial compost instead of increasing the volume of waste going to landfills, as recyclables can do. Being made from corn, one of the most petroleum-intensive crops of all — and GE corn at that — PLA is not an ideal solution but we believe it’s the best option available at this time.

A coincidental benefit of PLA, according to the University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, is that bioplastics do not require phthalates, a class of chemicals identified as reproductive and developmental toxicants. Scientists say food may be contaminated when it comes into contact with packaging that contains phthalates. This means PLA bioplastics could be safer for consumers than petroleum-based plastics.

Continual improvement

Searching for sustainable packaging is an ongoing process at PCC. We are using PLA only reluctantly until sustainable and commercially sturdy beverage cups, soup cups, lids and meat trays are available. We are encouraged by the paperboard boxes with water-based linings.

We anticipate, over time, that non-GE alternatives could emerge. Our 17 years of work for transparency through labeling is a fundamental driver that is making this happen. Demand for non-GE products is growing.

PCC’s decision to choose compostable serve ware over recyclables in no way should be construed as indicating PCC now believes it is okay to contribute to demand for GE corn. Instead, the decision was made knowing that composting has a higher environmental value than recycling, that recyclables may not recycle but wind up in landfills, and the fact that there is virtually no compostable, non-GE packaging that satisfies commercial needs and Seattle’s ordinance.

Not yet, at least. But we’ll be at the front of the queue when there is.

GE corn PLA offset program

While there is no dedicated, non-GE corn for a PLA plastic supply stream, PCC is gathering information about offset programs designed to reduce use of GE corn overall.

The offset programs work much like the clean-energy (wind) offset programs offered by utilities. Residents purchase green energy credits to offset other more environmentally impactful sources of electricity.

In the offset programs for GE-corn PLA, participants similarly pay a small upcharge for a program to contract with farmers to ensure a proportionate amount of non-GE corn is planted and segregated. They calculate how much starch is used to make resins for our packaging, how many pounds of resin are used, and how much corn is used to make the resins to arrive at the numbers used for offset. One program is through NatureWorks and another is through the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

PCC’s pledge to identify GE

PCC is committed to transparency and has pledged voluntarily to identify genetically engineered products in our stores by 2018, whether it’s required by law or not. This pledge includes packaging. We’re working on the rollout.

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