Nearly 113 billion disposable cups, 39 billion disposable eating utensils, and 29 billion disposable plates are used in the U.S. each year, many of which are manufactured from toxic chemicals, in addition to being non-recyclable and non-biodegradable. Thus, the safety and sustainability of foodservice ware has become a growing issue, with a number of communities even banning the use of polystyrene products. As a result, many companies are replacing fossil-fuel-based plastics with those made from plants such as corn, potatoes, sugarcane, and trees. However, challenges remain with their production, use, and recyclability.
“Making products from renewable resources is important,” says Stanley Eller, coordinator of the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative. “However, biobased content is not the only measure of sustainability.”
The members of the SBC and the Business-NGO Working Group, which include Whole Foods, Dell, Kaiser Permanente, Health Care Without Harm, and the city and county of San Francisco, have provided clarity on what constitutes sustainability in the BioSpecs. The “Sustainability Criteria” provide guidance across the product life cycle on such diverse and complex issues as biomass feedstock production, use of genetically modified organisms, product additives including nanomaterials and toxic chemicals, product labeling, and end-of-product life issues such as compostability and biodegradability.
“We’re trying to prevent ‘greenwashing’ of products, which may be partially or wholly biobased, but fail to meet other important sustainability standards,” Eller says.
The BioSpecs provide a framework for buyers to assess the sustainability of these products during three stages of their life cycle: biomass production, manufacturing, and end of product life. By achieving selected criteria in each stage of the cycle, manufacturers can claim recognition for their products at the Bronze, Silver, and Gold levels. The Gold level is reserved for the highest level of performance.
Foodservice product buyers can use these specifications to guide their purchases. While third-party certifiers may exist for some of the criteria included in the BioSpecs, such as compostability, no organization to date provides second- or third-party certification of these comprehensive specifications. Manufacturers of biobased products can also use these BioSpecs as a roadmap to improve the sustainability of the products they offer.
“San Francisco has embarked on an ambitious program toward a goal of zero waste to landfill or incineration fundamentally changing how our discards are managed in the city,” says Jack Macy, commercial zero waste coordinator for the city and county of San Francisco. “We are composting foodservice ware directly with food waste and we need to know which products are truly compostable. The BioSpecs provide clear guidance that can help the city meet our goals for reducing waste, toxic emissions, greenhouse gases, and dependence on petroleum-based products.”
“The BioSpecs are an important step forward for this industry sector in responding to the growing consumer demand for sustainable, bio-based foodservice ware,” says Lee Kane, ecoczar for Whole Foods Market’s North Atlantic Region. “We intend to use and sell these products in our stores and need to have clear standards by which to evaluate them.”