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Ever stare at a menu for an eternity and still find yourself unable to make a decision?  Maybe you weren’t sure of your own priorities that day or maybe you simply didn’t have enough information. Making the right choice on which cups, plates, bowls and other single-use items to use also requires information and forethought – especially if you’re exploring environmentally preferable products.

For example, using a cup, container or napkin made with post-consumer recycled material such as fiber or PET plastic from water or soda bottles is one sustainable option that supports recycling and makes sense in several ways. First, it creates a market for post-consumer recycled content (all those blue bin items need to go somewhere) and it reduces the amount of virgin material necessary to make the product. Second, post-consumer recycling also diverts waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill. So using a single-use item made with post-consumer recycled material provides an environmental benefit in the pre-use stage of the product’s lifecycle, but what about the end of the lifecycle? Unfortunately, in many communities, foodservice containers are not being recycled due to food contamination, lack of infrastructure and not enough volume of any one material to make it economically viable. There are a number of communities and organizations that are working with our industry to increase recycling of all single-use containers and I’ll have more on those programs in a later posting. A good place to check what is recycled in your community is http://www.earth911.com/ or with your waste hauler. So if the end-of-life stage is more important to you and you live in a community that doesn’t accept single use food containers for recycling, you may want to consider a different option.

So what else is out there that will address your end-of-lifecycle concerns? More and more products are being introduced that are certified ASTM compostable – which means they will degrade up to 90% in a commercial composting facility within 180 days. Most of these products are made with renewable materials such as wood pulp, corn, potato starch or sugarcane. Compostable products can give you both pre- and end-of-life benefits if the item is sent to a commercial composting facility that converts the material into compost. However, there are only about 100 commercial composting facilities in the entire country that accept compostable foodservice products, making the post-use benefit more difficult to attain than it sounds at first. If you want to see what type of composting is available in your area check www.findacomposter.com. An emerging area is in-vessel composting where an operator places a container on site that will store organic material (food, tree clippings) and compostable single-use items and turns into compost. There is a lot of development going on in composting so expect to see the infrastructure continue to grow.

We haven’t reached the point where picking the right environmentally preferable product is an easy choice without trade-offs, but a little investigation and pre-planning will help make the choice much clearer. In my next post I’ll provide some important steps and tips on how to get started.

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Kim Frankovich
Kim Frankovich is VP of sustainability at Solo Cup Company, and is responsible for addressing sustainability in Solo’s operations, products and partnerships.
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