Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It's Time to Organize!

Amidst the sea of grading statistics exams, cognitive exams, and student papers, I'm also trying to quickly learn about Styrofoam issues (Radical Garbage Man, you are a GEM! Thanks for sending those links!), the Greendisk program, and the logistics of composting food/yard waste on campus. I'm also coordinating with the Facilities Committee on green issues; I figure it's better to collaborate and build a unified voice surrounding these issues rather than work on these issues in a disjointed and fragmented manner.

So it's time to get organized. Next week, I'm meeting with a colleague to write a letter to Dining Services. The purpose of this letter is to publicly raise the issue of using Styrofoam on campus and to offer alternative solutions to this problem. After this letter has been drafted, I will ask students, faculty, and staff for their support by signing this letter.

But why write a letter?

As I reflected upon my meeting with Steve Rose this week, I realized something. In passing, Steve said that about four people have approached him about using Styrofoam on campus. As I thought about that comment, it occurred to me that it's easy to dismiss four people's suggestions. And another thing: The Recycling Committee receives several emails about how Dining Services should be improved. Those emails are not sent to Steve, so he's not getting those messages. So there's a disconnect here. And that's why it's time get organized--we can't afford to wait indefinitely for price decreases on bio-plastics. We've got to be pro-active to instil these changes and first, these ideas need to be heard, not deflected on an individual basis.

So, as you can imagine, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes activities going on at this time. To be sure, this is a labor of love: Taking action to make positive changes is labor intensive and time consuming. And it's worth it.


Bif said...

There are a lot of things that you might want to study before buying into the anti-Styrofoam parade. One of the reasons that polystyrene is less expensive is that it uses less stuff in production versus alternative products. Like less energy and water for just two. But pushing for bio-plastics without having any idea about their functionality might need to be considered important. The following is from the student paper at the University of Washington, which did yield to valls for the switch, even at the higher cost.

Staff Editorial: Earth-friendly but impractical: Biodegradable ...
Daily - University of Washington - Seattle,WA,USA
... students can throw them and any uneaten food into compost bins. What responsible citizens, I'd say. However, after having collected a biodegradable fork ...

Staff Editorial: Earth-friendly but impractical: Biodegradable forks faint under the heat
October 11, 2007
By Vicky Yan

Earth-friendly additions to campus have caused unwarranted alarm in my daily eating habits.
Across campus, students can now chew their meal with biodegradable forks, knives, spoons and plates — items that were previously wasted in the big bad G (garbage). After using the utensils, students can throw them and any uneaten food into compost bins.
What responsible citizens, I’d say. However, after having collected a biodegradable fork for my pesto pasta, I encountered a rather bothersome realization. My fork began to mold into an awkward shape, causing my pasta to slide off in defeat. I then tried using a spoon to stir my lukewarm tea and it started to bend forward, almost painfully so.
The fact of the matter is that these creations cause more annoyance than environmental benefit. Using a melting utensil will result in using more products instead of being resourceful. More material (biodegradable or not) will be wasted, thus a need to increase productivity will arise.
Why use several deteriorating spoons made from corn when I can use a single functioning plastic one? Or better yet, what happened to the days of metal utensils?
Composting has hit a near cultural phenomenon within the past few years, especially with a renewed spike in environmental awareness on and around campus. From strategically placed compost bins to new ‘organic’ utensils, doing good for Mother Earth has never been so easy.
But like most trends, composting will come and go. Organic cups will be thrown to waste with Coke cans and plastic wrappers. I can accept this unavoidable fact about trends, but unfortunately, I’m not prepared to see how quickly my 100 percent biodegradable fork will melt when I twirl my pasta ever so elegantly.
I’m all for doing my part in keeping the Earth beautiful, but not at the expense of an unusable product. Plastic utensils can be used with food at just about any temperature, whereas organic products faint at the sight of fettuccini. You do the math.
I guess you can’t always have your fork and use it too.

Michelle Verges said...


Good point. At this time, the only product Dining Services would purchase would be bio-degradable cups.

And the price difference is extraordinary. The bio-plastic cup is 15 cents/cup, whereas the Styrofoam is 4 cents/cup.

Besides the potential impracticalities (i.e., using a bio-fork for hot fetuccini), another issue to consider is composting. It simply makes no sense to purchase bio-degradable products, only to have them sent to a landfill.

In light of these issues, a practical alternative would be to encourage folks to bring their reusable cups for drinking. That way, there's a decrease in the amount of waste that's generated when using Styrofoam. And it's clearly much cheaper to reuse a cup than purchase a bio-cup (though I'd be in favor of using bio-cups if we had a composting program on campus).

But you are most certainly correct: I need to read more information about any potential health risks, if any, that are associated with the creation, use, and degredation of Styrofoam.

Okay, back to work!


Bif said...

If you would like to know more about polystyrene (PS), I can help. Leave a post and I am sure we can arrange a means for getting the info to you. While we do not make PS cups or foodservice products in your state we do have a plant in Indiana that makes PS procts for other uses and as a company are very much involved in addressing environmental questions with the facts about its real impact. We were the first company to receive FDA non-objection for a plastic food contact product using recycled content and we continue doing so today.

Anyway, I'm am working as well and must get back to it. As I wrote just leave a response.

Michelle Verges said...


Thanks for your offer to help; I'll take you up on it! :0)

Here's a question that I don't know the answer to at the moment: Is there any place to recycle Styrofoam (PS) containers and cups?

I ask because I know there is a recycling facility that will accept PS peanuts and the like, but they will not accept used PS cups and containers. Obviously, contaminated goods in those products would negatively affect the ability to recycle PS, but is there a company that will accept those containers and cups, anyway? Provided that people clean their PS containers afterwards, then that should significantly reduce contamination.

Anyway, I sincerely appreciate any information you can send my way.


Radical Garbage Man said...

Polystyrene is an incredibly difficult to recycle material, even more so once it's been contaminated with food. There are also numerous studies indicating that polystyrene may leach chemicals into hot foods and beverages.

I will happily admit my bias against this material, especially as part of what I do for a living is try to keep material out of our municipal landfill and that's the only safe place for polystyrene to go.

Of course, I'm sure bif has plenty of data that support the safety and recyclability of polystyrene, but if I'm reading correctly, bif makes a living by getting people to buy it, so hey, pick your biased source.

As for bioplastics melting with heat, "Spudware," which is made from potato starch, has a significantly higher melting point than many of the other products on the market. It will still melt easier than plastic, but part of the problem you're trying to solve is that the plastic fork will never, ever go away.

Excellent Packaging & Supply
, which markets a wide range of biodegradable products, has very good detailed information about the physical properties and limitations of their products.

The key consideration is not "functionality" -- you can find a specific sustainable, non-plastic product for your application (including providing, collecting and washing metal cutlery). The key is making sure you have a waste management strategy if you're going to switch from disposable environmentally persitant petroleum poisons to disposable compostables instead of switching to reusable alternatives.

Beware plastic peddlers bearing gifts!

Michelle Verges said...

Radical Garbage Man,

I hear your point loud and clear! :0)

Yes, switching from plastics to bio-degradable products involves a dramatic change in the waste-management strategy and system. We need the infrastructure to support these bio-degradable products.

It's much easier said than done, but I'm looking into what's possible and feasible.

So that means I'll be attending the Facilities Committee meeting next week - that way, I can ask about composting on this campus. What are the logistics involved to do this? Apparently, the state of Indiana says we're supposed to compost food and yard waste, but there's no penalty for ignoring this law.

Anyway, this is why I really like the idea of the cup program. While we're debating about these larger issues, we can at the same time, sidestep the problem by bringing our own mugs and cups to the dining hall.


Bif said...

Michelle, I'll get the info you asked for about recycling PS. I will address the things brought up by GM but must go until tomorrow.
Yes, I am biased but I'm also biased about stating something as fact without scientific proof to back it up.

Radical Garbage Man said...

How about some quick highlights of what pops up first when you google "polystyrene leach":

Here's a website with a couple of links to reports on the toxicity of polystyrene .

Of course, our dear friends at the American Chemistry Council are willing to debunk myths of leaching for us. Note the clever rhetorical devices of their "mythbusting." They have debunked a hoax that doesn't pertain. By proving that the "dihydrogen monoxide" leachate in plastic bottles is just a spoof (dihydrogen monoxide is a way to say "H20"), they leave the reader with the impression that any concerns about polystyrene have been put to rest. It's like a newspaper reporting that a kid was mauled to death by a bear and then debunking it by proving that there is no bigfoot.

Sorry for starting a flame war on your site.

Beth in the Fake Plastic Fish Tank said...

I for one love a good flame war as long as there are citations to back up the flames. I'm looking forward to Bif's info as well. I need all the data I can get. And Radical Garbageman, I'm glad you are able to read and understand these reports and studies and explain them to the rest of us.