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Should Bioplastics Be Banned from Organic Compost Heaps?

Local Matters


Published March 2, 2011 at 9:41 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Dan Goossen

Intervale Compost Products no longer accepts biodegradable utensils, because certain brands of “compostable cutlery” don’t actually break down as advertised. Forks, knives and spoons made from cornstarch were showing up barely changed after years of being buried in the dirt mounds, says general manager Dan Goossen.

Now the Burlington area’s largest compost operation is preparing to ban all forms of biodegradable food packaging — and some are calling it a huge step backward for Vermont that will send mountains of compostable material to the landfill.

The reason for the proposed ban has nothing to do with how well plant-based coffee cups and take-out containers decompose. Indeed, many varieties of so-called “bioplastic” revert to dirt in a matter of months, which is why Intervale Compost continued accepting the material even after banning cutlery last year.

Rather, the problem is that the National Organic Standards Board, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, considers bioplastics to be “synthetic” products that cannot be used in organic agriculture. Since Intervale Compost products are labeled “approved for use on organic farms,” that leaves only two options: Ditch the organic label or ban bioplastics from the waste stream.

The Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD), which assumed operation of Intervale Compost Products in 2008 following issues related to groundwater pollution and Native American artifacts in the area, is choosing the latter course of action. On March 8, composters from around Vermont and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, the state’s certifying authority for organic products, will gather in Richmond to establish a set of standards for what’s allowed in organic compost. CSWD general manager Tom Moreau says it’s “99.5 percent” certain the group will decide to prohibit bioplastics from all compost sold for organic use — possibly as early as July.

The change comes as Intervale Compost Products prepares to move from Burlington to a new facility being constructed in Williston. Intervale Compost stopped accepting food waste and yard debris on February 28 in preparation for the move this summer, though residents can still bring compost to CSWD drop-off centers.

For CSWD, banning bioplastics is all about the green — that is, greenbacks. Organic compost currently sells for $31 a yard. Without the organic label, Moreau estimates he could get no more than $21 a yard for it.

Already, the compost operation runs $200,000 in the red and is subsidized by other CSWD fees, Moreau says. Losing any more money would jeopardize the entire program.

“This program is not paying its own way right now,” Moreau says. “Not even close.”

Each year, Intervale Compost Products takes in some 14,000 tons of food scraps, leaves and manure and turns them into nutrient-rich soil that it sells to farmers and gardeners. Admitting he has “mixed feelings” about the proposed prohibition, Goossen says he expects to see a decrease in composting countywide if and when the new ban takes effect, particularly among the larger institutions.

“It’s possible that people would be less inclined to separate food scraps if they had to use multiple receptacles,” he says.

In fact, Fletcher Allen Health Care spokesman Mike Noble suggests the hospital will send its considerable volume of compostable goods into the landfill if the ban goes through. Not only that, but Noble claims the hospital would most likely switch to cheaper, noncompostable plastic cutlery in the cafeteria.

One of the substances at issue is polylactic acid, or PLA, a “compostable plastic” derived from corn starch or sugar cane that’s used to make some food packaging. NOFA-VT’s Nicole Dehne says her organizations’ “hands are tied” when it comes to PLA because the USDA, the ultimate authority, doesn’t consider it organic.

How much compostable plastic does the Intervale actually receive? Estimates vary, but the program accepts 2400 tons of food scraps a year — from Burlington-area restaurants and households and big institutions such as Fletcher Allen, the University of Vermont and public-school cafeterias. Moreau guesses that bioplastics account for 1 percent of the food-scrap total — or as much as 24 tons. But Goossen believes the number is probably far lower — a fraction of 1 percent, he surmises.

Whatever the volume, diverting biodegradable products to the landfill because they’re not organic is a big step backward, says Bob Bond, president of Vegware U.S., a Connecticut-based company that manufactures 180 compostable products made from corn, sugar cane and paper.

“The greenest state in the union is about to slip back into the Stone Age,” says Bond, whose products are used in FAHC’s cafeteria and elsewhere in Vermont.

“We might as well have a Styrofoam festival this summer in Burlington, and burn Styrofoam logs and sit around a Styrofoam fire and sing ‘Kumbaya,’” Bond adds sarcastically.

The organic label matters, Moreau says, and offers an example. Last year, a farmer from New York state bought a load of compost from the Intervale. When regulators found out compostable plastic went into making the product, they threatened to yank the farm’s organic certification.

Holly Rae Taylor, who managed Intervale Compost Products before the permitting problems forced her ouster, is speaking out against the proposed bioplastics ban. She says CSWD should set up two waste streams — one for organic compost, one for nonorganic — to prevent biodegradable products from ending up in the landfill. Unlike other commercial composters, CSWD’s mission is to reduce the amount of trash going into landfills, Taylor notes.

But CSWD’s Moreau says that Intervale Compost Products doesn’t receive sufficient volume to justify a second, nonorganic stream and won’t have the physical space for it at the new facility, either. “We’re going to try to go the purist route and see if that works,” Moreau says.

Taylor doesn’t believe that. “They’re smart people, and they can figure out the logistics of dual stream,” says Taylor, who now co-owns Home Ecology in Shelburne, a store and website that sell green products, including compostable cutlery. “It’s a marketing decision for them,” she adds. “The irony is that we’re so green here, we’re in jeopardy of becoming less green.”

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