Kyle sent me this and I wanted to post it. Here is is below as well. My comments are after, in italics.
It’s Time We Tossed Out
our Throw-away Culture
Sep 24, 2007 04:30 AM
We feel guilty doing it. We know it’s not sustainable. But when we head to the cafeteria to grab a sandwich or some fries, we leave with a handful of Styrofoam and plastic utensils that get chucked in the garbage.
Could we bring our lunch? Yep.
Could we bring our own Tupperware? Yep.
But most often we don’t, as much as we know we should. Who, after all, has the time or foresight to plan their day in such a way?
This disposable culture extends to many items we buy, such as the plastic packaging in most products.
Kids toys are the worst – an endless struggle with plastic film, polystyrene foam and plastic ties, all tightly glued, stapled and knotted to a recyclable cardboard structure that’s so mangled in the end it never reaches a blue box.
There’s no doubt we need laws to limit how much packaging can be used as a percentage of product volume. But what’s left over still can’t be efficiently or cost-effectively recycled, at least not compared to plastic ketchup bottles or aluminum cans. That’s why our municipal recycling programs, as far as they’ve come, have been unable to accommodate Styrofoam and plastic packaging materials.
So, what’s the answer?
There’s been a lot of talk of making “green” plastics out of the starch in corn, wheat or rice, not only to wean us from petrochemicals, but also to create plastics that can easily biodegrade through large-scale composting without harming the nearby environment.
It’s a tempting idea, but one that’s open to some legitimate criticism. For example, we’re already seeing bioplastic water bottles (processed from man-made polylactic acid, or PLA) hitting the market as a way for bottled-water companies to put a green spin on what many consider an unethical business – kind of like hybrid SUVs or carbon offsets, both of which exist to ease our consumption guilt.
But beyond the question of whether the bottled-water market should exist or not, bottles made out of bioplastic could “contaminate” and ultimately impair the plastic bottle recycling systems currently in place and working.
Dr. Michel Huneault, a scientist at the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Materials Institute, says the best place to use green, biodegradable plastics is in places where recycling isn’t an economic and energy-efficient option.
“It’s not the ultimate goal for everything,” said Huneault in a recent interview. “It’s for materials we can’t recycle.”
This brings us back to polystyrene foam. If it could be made from natural, biodegradable materials it’s a direction we probably should embrace. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to “foam” PLA, which at the moment is the leading bioplastic on the market.
Huneault may have overcome this problem. In the January 2007 issue of the international journal Polymer, his research team demonstrated a way to blend vegetable starch with PLA, two materials that typically react like oil and water. By doing so, they made it possible to create a variety of new bioplastic blends with unique characteristics for a range of niche applications.
“Nobody has ever brought them (starch and PLA) together before,” Huneault said. “We’re the first to publish that.”
Then in the July 2007 issue of Macromolecular Bioscience, the team revealed another breakthrough: development of a bioplastic blend that could be injected with carbon dioxide to create a biodegradable foam.
Huneault figures he’ll be able to license his blending approach in about 12 months, perhaps enabling the mass-manufacture of polystyrene cups and packaging that’s made out of crops like corn and that biodegrade in weeks, not thousands of years. You might argue that the use of food crops to replace anything made from petrochemicals is a disaster waiting to happen. It will lead to more taco riots in Mexico, drive up feedstock prices in Alberta and take food from the poor to “green up” consumption of the rich.
Caution is in order. Indeed, Huneault said it would be a huge mistake to make biofuels out of corn because demand from transportation clearly threatens world food supplies. He prefers that biofuels be made from the cellulosic material in biomass, such as agricultural residue, wood debris and non-food crops.
But green, biodegradable replacements for polystyrene and other plastics used for packaging wouldn’t pose such a threat. They would represent a tiny sliver of the overall plastics market, which itself is dwarfed by the fuel market.
Besides, using corn to make bio-foam certainly makes more sense than throwing foam cups and containers in the garbage.
“You wouldn’t see any change in the price of starch or corn,” he said. “I think the market will have to move in this direction.”
I don’t know about you, but it would certainly make my trips to the cafeteria a bit easier to stomach.
I like the idea of this article, and the title. I still think the best way is to not have disposables. Use long lasting reusable containers and charge a deposit. If people bring their own, they should get a discount.