Sustainability | March 2009 | By Robin Hilmantel

Compostable vs. Biodegradable vs. Recyclable

Find out which type makes most sense for foodservice companies trying to save the planet—and their profit margins.

A couple of years ago, Michael Oshman found a full line of foodservice packaging that claimed to biodegrade in landfills more quickly than any other plastic on the market.

“It was like, ‘This is the product that we've been waiting for,’” says Oshman, who has been executive director of the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) since he founded the organization 19 years ago. “It was so convincing.”

But then he sent it to his team for analysis and found its claims were false.

If carefully worded assertions can fool someone who has been entrenched in the green restaurant movement for almost two decades, how can the rest of the industry hope to understand the complexities of terms such as “compostable”, “biodegradable”, and “recyclable”?

With that question in mind, QSR talked with several experts to decipher the implications of each term—and the impact that sustainable packaging will have on your bottom line.

Compostable

Compostable products, defined by ASTM International standards 6400 or 6868, biodegrade in commercial composting facilities at a specified rate (usually 180 days or less). But it isn't as simple as it might seem.

Restaurateurs have no guarantees if they want to use a local farm's compost or their own backyard facility. ASTM standards ensure breakdown only in municipal or industrial facilities, which most cities don't yet have.

Even if you have access to one, compostable products aren't always the best choice for quick-serves.

You will need a designated bin for discarding them and disposal training for employees and customers. You will also have to contact your local compost to arrange a pick-up or drop-off procedure.

And you can't just get one compostable product; the straws you stock now can contaminate compostable cups.

Of course, this all assumes that the customer stays in the store. About 70 percent of quick-serve customers eat outside of the restaurant, and virtually all of them throw their waste in the trashcan. Compostable products lose their value if they end up in a landfill.

“Even if [composting] can happen in your city, it's not to say Bob who just got the soda in your cup is going to go home and do the right thing,” Oshman says.

But composting does have its advantages.

“At the end of the day, plate scrapings have no place to go unless you compost it,” says Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). And food can comprise 60 to 70 percent of quick-serve waste.

Biodegradable

Technically, biodegradable refers to anything that breaks into smaller and smaller pieces until microorganisms can consume it. The reality in foodservice is quite different.

Unlike compostable products, there are no industry standards for what is and isn't considered biodegradable.

“Biodegradable has really turned more into a marketing term,” says Anne Bedarf, a project manager with the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC). “The other big issue is the consumer confusion that, 'Oh, if something is biodegradable, it's great for it to be in a landfill. I can litter it, and it will go away.'”

But Bedarf says that actual breakdown of anything in landfills is rare.

“There are dozens if not hundreds of manufactures who are now claiming that their materials will biodegrade in landfills as a result of some magic additive,” Mojo says. “There's no data to support those things.”

Recyclable

Recyclable products are anything that can be remade into something new.

“Technically everything is recyclable,” Bedarf says. “It's kind of a misnomer to say whether something's recyclable or not. It's really what's recyclable given our current collection, sorting, and processing infrastructure.”

While materials made of most metals, plastics, glass, and cardboards are typically accepted, recycling practices vary by region.

“That little symbol at the bottom of those plastic cups that you buy is almost irrelevant,” Oshman says. “If you really want to make sure that something's recyclable, then you need to call up your recycler.”

Additionally, most paper recycling can't deal with food contamination, forcing quick-serves to throw out used cups and plates.

But when packaging is recycled, it's the best choice environmentally because it reuses a product for the same purpose.

As with compostable products, though, restaurateurs can't count on takeout customers to recycle. More important than using products that are recyclable, Oshman says, is using ones made from as much recycled material as possible.

“When a restaurant buys something like a Bio-Plus Earth made from recycled material, it's already done the good deed,” Oshman says. “It's already saved those 17 trees per ton.”

Recyclable or compostable products have only the potential to do a good deed.

The Bottom Line

Sustainable packaging is going to cost you more than standard products. We found a case of 1,000 compostable 12-ounce NatureWorks cold cups averages 97 cents per cup, whereas a 1,000 pack of 12-ounce Solo cold cups comes out to about 13 cents each before shipping.

But the price of sustainable packaging is going down as demand increases. Additionally, some of the extra cost is recovered in money saved in disposal.

“You really need to look at it from a systems perspective,” Mojo says.

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