In San Francisco, many compostable containers, cups and cutlery are brought to the landfill. (Courtesy photo)

Compostable containers don’t end up where you think they do

For years, San Franciscans have used compostable plastic containers, cups and cutlery because it’s supposed to be the better environmental choice.

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At a zero waste event in July, Recology President Mike Sangiacomo was reportedly asked how the company handles “compostable” plastic packaging. According to sources who were there, Sangiacomo’s answer was: we’re landfilling it.

“The sorters are pulling it out,” Eric Potashner, Recology’s Vice President and Senior Director of Strategic Affairs, confirmed when I asked about Sangiacomo’s statement.

There are exceptions — San Francisco’s recycling and composting provider doesn’t put all compostable plastic in the landfill. But the fact that it isn’t composting some or even most of our compostable plastic is very concerning.

For years, San Franciscans have bought and used compostable plastic containers, cups and cutlery because it’s supposed to be the better environmental choice. We put the items in the green bin when we’re done because they’re supposed to get composted. If we should change what we buy or how we sort, City officials need to tell us.

Recology has legitimate reasons for landfilling compostable plastic. With the exception of “biobags” and other clearly marked items, it’s extremely hard for sorters to distinguish between traditional plastic and compostable plastic. To avoid contamination, sorters at Recology’s composting facility pull out unmarked, plastic-looking items to avoid contamination.

Compostable plastic can also take longer to break down in some cases, and can expose compost to hazardous fluorinated substances, such as PFAS and PFOS. These chemicals keep grease and water from sticking to disposable foodware. Studies have linked them to numerous health impacts, including hormone disruption, immune system dysfunction and cancer.

“PFOS is a material that we don’t want in our compost and food supply,” Potashner said.

The challenges associated with compostable plastic are not a secret. Earlier this year, Oregon facility operators, including Recology Organics Oregon, published a joint statement opposing the packaging material for nine reasons. Portland, Oregon has even told residents to leave compostable containers out of their green bins.

Waste Management, one of the country’s largest trash companies and the provider in Alameda and Marin counties, has echoed similar concerns.

“We share Recology’s concerns about compostable plastics and other contaminants,” Karen Stern, Waste Management’s Director of Communications, told me. “At our Marin County facility, we do not accept compostable plastics because it would violate our compost’s OMRI-listing (Organic Materials Review Institute) for organic farming application.”

Together, Recology and other operators are pushing for better labeling and performance standards, so compostable plastic can actually be composted. But until manufacturers make these necessary changes, our cups, containers, and cutlery could end up in the landfill.

City officials are aware of the problem. In response, the Department of Environment is pushing the mantra “refuse, reuse, and reduce” as the best environmental choice. San Francisco also addressed contamination by banning single-use food containers that contain PFAS and PFOS starting in January 2020.

“This is going to have a significant impact,” Charles Sheehan, Chief Policy and Public Affairs Officer at the Department of Environment, told me. “It will reduce the amount of fluorinated chemicals in our compostable foodware.”

Protecting San Franciscans from toxins is fantastic. But pushing a mantra and addressing one form of contamination isn’t enough. San Francisco should work to ensure more compostable plastic items are properly labeled.

Officials should also be more transparent with San Franciscans. Better policies and practices come from better information, and the push toward reusable can use help.

“We can’t recycle or compost our way out of this problem,” Miriam Gordon of the nonprofit UPSTREAM, told me. “We need to focus on stopping the throwaway culture.”

Right now, UPSTREAM is working with Supervisor Aaron Peskin on his proposed “Reuse Ordinance.” Following the lead of Berkeley and San Anselmo, the legislation would add a 25-cent charge for single-use takeout cups and food containers in San Francisco if passed. The hope is that the fee would encourage customers to use refillable and reusable alternatives.

We should strive toward a refillable and reusable future. But San Franciscans need policies and services in place to help us make the better environmental choice. Continuing to believe compostable plastic is a solution isn’t helping anyone.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

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